The Church: Dying & Rising

Image by Dale Forbes from Pixabay

This spring one of the synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had to cancel its annual assembly because they couldn’t gather a quorum. A synod’s assembly elects leaders and adopts budgets. A synod’s assembly affects every congregation in the synod, yet they couldn’t make it happen. Our congregation had to cancel Vacation Bible School this summer due to a lack of interest. Congregations all over are registering lower participation levels in all aspects of congregational life. The pandemic did not cause this – but it accelerated it.  Twenty years ago, the average church member attended worship twice a month or more. Today it is once a month or less.

The first response to this trend of growing non-participation is that we must be “doing it” wrong. We haven’t adapted to change. We haven’t given people what they want and need. The church is not trying hard enough or saying the right words. There is perhaps some truth to this. Congregations can make lots of choices that are not helpful.

A second response is to “repackage” and work to make the church more attractive or more “relevant” to people. We offer the church as a better way to be busy or a more correct way to live. This is what churches that offer a “prosperity gospel” or a “self-help” model do as they promise an economically blessed or more fulfilling life if you come to church. This is a marketing maneuver, I think. It either immediately, or eventually, robs the gospel of its grace and love as we prescribe works that are necessary to save us.

It seems to me, however, that the larger issue is that these are a sign of the times. In a world that is more and more secular – meaning that God and faith have less and less and less to do with the individualized “search for the self,” in an age where the necessity of community is eclipsed by individualism, in an age where “busyness” is the means to measure life instead of depth, wisdom, meaning, the church is more and more unnecessary for more and more people.

In 1950 73% of people said they belonged to a religious organization. In 2020, it is 47%. Since 1998, every generation (Traditionalists born before 1945, Boomers born between 1946-64, Gen X – 1965-80, Millennials – 1981 -1996, Gen Z – 1997-2002) has become less affiliated with religious organizations. In the late nineties, only about 10% of people said they had no religious affiliation at all. Today the number is climbing toward 40%. The younger the generation, the fewer affiliate. Parents have always been the biggest influence on the faith of their children. As each successive generation of parents moves away from the church a little more, their children move even farther.

Does this mean the Church is dying? Does it mean that faith is dying? In some ways, I have to say. “Yes.” Death is here. The ways we think about church, faith, discipleship, membership, and worship, are all undergoing changes that will kill off what we thought was the truth. Yet, the future of the Church is not in our hands. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit. While the church is dying, it is also rising.

Our congregation, for instance, continues to attract people who want to be here – although for different reasons than days gone by. We are doing more than ever to serve our neighbors and make a difference in the world. We’re seeing participation in ministry changing to different models and ways of connecting. God is doing a new thing – if we can just discern what it is!

There are lots of questions about how we address this dying and rising. I must say that I don’t feel like I have lots of answers. The thing I know most deeply is that I don’t know much! The questions, however, I do know.

  • How do we address the fact that people want kids confirmed but the kids are unable to participate in a program of faith formation?
  • How do we tell if we are reaching people if fewer people show up?
  • How do people connect with a God who promises to be with us when we gather as the church in Word and sacrament?
  • Is it possible to work to reverse the trend to reject life connected to a religious community or has the ship sailed?
  • How will a congregation that is organized to invite members to lead go forward if everyone is too busy to do the work?
  • How do we help parents keep their promises to raise their baptized children in the faith if we can’t get the kids together or the parents to help?
  • How do pastors care for the congregation when the members are increasingly unknown and unconnected?

There are a hundred or more questions, and so far, clear answers are fleeting or not forthcoming. That is, however, where faith enters. The future, even when uncertain, is not ours to fashion. We are called to trust that God is now and will be the answer to every question and calamity. So, we let the church die, so that God might raise it up in ever new ways.

Pax Christi, Tim Olson – Lead Pastor

copyright 2022 Timothy V. Olson – all rights reserved

previously published by Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Lifecycles: The Life and Death of Congregations

William Shakespeare reminded us about the reality of life’s cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death in his play Henry IV, when he wrote, “We all owe God a death.”  No matter how hard we try, death is a reality for all living things. We can keep fit, avoid vices, take our vitamins and perhaps have some effect on stretching the life cycle out a bit. But, then again, those efforts may not slow death’s approach at all.

The same truth about life’s cycle applies to organizations, nations, governments, ideas, institutions and even congregations. Rome began, grew, matured and after some centuries, died. The Soviet Union fell. American Motors no longer makes Ramblers in Kenosha. I’m pretty sure the congregation founded by Paul in Corinth is no longer open for worship. Organizations can, however, have much more control over the length of the life-cycle than we humans possess. Congregations can move out of maturity and decline and redefine, redevelop, or be reborn to meet that changes that are pushing it into decline. It is not easy; it is not without cost. The longer an organization declines, the harder it is to go through some renewal. If one waits long enough to change, to bear the pain, to catch a new vision, the harder and less likely it is that death can be avoided. The chart below paints a picture of this phenomenon:

life cycle 2

Holy Trinity has been around for over 60 years. We have seen growth and we have embraced stability. These are good things. For some in our community, there is fear that we are declining and death is in our future. Some worry that other growing congregations will take all our members. That is highly unlikely. Others worry that change and acting faithfully will make folks mad and they will leave. Still others long for “good old days” – where things always seem better and the skies are not cloudy all day.

When I see nearly 300 kids and over a hundred volunteers come for VBS, I have to say I don’t worry about any imminent demise. The real causes of decline and death in a congregation is that it becomes more concerned about its survival than its mission. It is that plain and simple. The picture above reminds us that returning to our mission brings life. The choice we face as a congregation that has stabilized and matured is whether we will make the effort to be renewed and reborn through the power of the Spirit, or will accept the forces of gravity and begin a hopefully dignified decline into death.  Will we take survival as our mission – which is no mission at all? Or will we lay aside or anxiety and fear and see where God wants to take us? What do you think we should do?