American Christians should relax about church decline

Popular Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote an article for CNN on “why millenials are leaving the church.” She really means the evangelical church, and she cites issues like excessive politicization, an anti-science attitude, and hostility to LGBT folks as reasons why people in her generation are jumping ship. She suggests that churches need to come around on these issues if they want to draw in today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings.

Since I’m neither an evangelical nor a millenial, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Mainline churches have problems with numbers across the generational board, so we’re not exactly in a position to lecture evangelicals about how to boost theirs.

But maybe that’s not really the point. I don’t want to attend a church that’s anti-gay or that tells me I can’t believe in evolution because I think those positions are wrong. Will a pro-gay, pro-science church attract more members? I frankly have no idea. But I do know that it’s better to live by what you consider to be the truth.

It seems to me that behind much of this anxiety about church decline is an unstated assumption that America is still the center of Christendom. Numerically, this just isn’t the case, as Philip Jenkins and others have been pointing out for some time. Whatever the future of Christianity is, it isn’t likely to happen here.

In light of that, maybe American Christians need to get over the idea that it’s up to us to ensure the future of Christianity. This could actually be quite liberating, allowing us to experiment with new forms of church life and take bold steps to live out our faith without constantly worrying about how it’s going to play to whatever demographic we’re trying to attract. Maybe we need to have a little more faith.

The biggest problem facing us is not the numerical decline of the church. It’s things like climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars. If Christians worried less about the former, they might discover the resources for interesting and fruitful ways of responding to the latter. And communities that can do that might actually be worth paying attention to.

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7 thoughts on “American Christians should relax about church decline

  1. Yeah, there are some pretty heavy assumptions about the progressive nature of history in telling people that they should change some of their core beliefs because the young folks are so over that. They might reasonably respond, Who says the young know better than the old, anyway?

    I suppose that whether the numerical decline of the church is the biggest problem depends on what you believe the church does for society and for the souls of individuals. Since mainliners don’t really believe in ‘no salvation outside the church,’ that becomes harder to define. But even if you’re worried about the eternal destiny of millennials’ souls, the Global South might be helping with that one too. There’s a church in my neighborhood that’s Anglican but not Episcopalian, because it was formed through a mission that the Church of Rwanda established in North America 10 or 15 years ago. And despite its African origin, it’s packed with educated white millennials. (I totally feel old when I visit there.) Of course, the Episcopalians aren’t too happy with these sorts of incursions on their turf. But it does show that global Christianity has gotten big enough that, if you aren’t going to bring them Jesus, someone will.

  2. No Protestant–mainline or otherwise–believes in “no salvation outside the church”! (Or at least they shouldn’t.)

    More seriously, I’m not suggesting that churches shouldn’t “bring them Jesus”–the entire rationale of the church’s existence is preaching and living out the gospel of Christ. But it makes a big difference if you understand that primarily as getting people into the church vs. getting the church out into the world.

    • I didn’t mean that you were suggesting that. I was actually agreeing with you that the old-line American churches shouldn’t act like the future of Christianity depends on them. Actually, maybe even the future of North American Christianity doesn’t depend on them!

  3. “Of course, the Episcopalians aren’t too happy with these sorts of incursions on their turf.”

    Actually, as a white educated millennial communicant of the Episcopal Church, I don’t mind the ACNA church plants one whit. It’s the wholesale transfers of parishes and dioceses that concern me more from the perspective of stability (in the Benedictine sense).

    Sure, the typical parishioner in an ACNA church plant may disagree with me on many culture war issues, but they attract young people out of the evangelical church who care about “climate change, persistent poverty and inequality, and wars and rumors of wars.” These young men and women share more of my values than almost anyone else, and where my moral certainty differs, I am not threatened by theirs.

    In twenty years, whoever funded the Institute for Religion and Democracy is going to get a nasty, God-given surprise for trying to undermine the moral leadership of the mainlines, and those ACNA church plants are going to be a big part of it.

  4. I think you are right on the button with your comment about not worrying about church decline. The church is always at its worst when it looks inwardly. And is at its best when looking outwards. The church is a body acting in love. There is no real church without action, just like there is no true belief without action. And our action must be directed to those who struggle and suffer. We increase the strength of our own centre when we look to the margins.

  5. I do sometimes get the feeling that in the Catholic church, perpetuating the institution itself (translation: evangelization) is supposed to be our main goal. You can almost feel the desperation when there’s talk of the waning of Catholicism in Europe and the UK, and the implication that it’s up to us in the US to keep things going (the US church does
    contribute something like 60% of the church’s wealth … http://www.economist.com/node/21560536).

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