We live in a culture that is set at breakneck pace in trying to change to better and better ideas. We see this in the radical and swift movements of society. We also see this in the great disdain and, at times, reactionary nature, of our congregations. Since more people than not in our established congregations are older, I wish to look at the issue of change and loss.
There comes a point in every life where things that were once constant are now unpredictable. Ask anyone who has gone to their 50th high school reunion. The faces are fewer and fewer, and, more often than not, that is not because of our travel, but due to death. We survey the faces of those who were with us on that journey, quite early in life, and we see that they are closer and closer to more frequent changes.
Congregations are no different. If we look back at the heyday of the church in the early 1960s, we see, what appears to be a far more vibrant church. There was a greater average Sunday attendance (the benchmark standard of health for greater than a century). We saw more children, more activities and, I might add, more loyalty.
We no longer live in a “Sunday leisure” society. Blue laws are a thing relegated to the ash heap of history. In fact, we are living increasingly with a society that views any institution, even the church, with incredible hostility and resentment. They (the unchurched) have seen the errors of the church, and, quite frankly, we merit their disdain. We have been largely silent except when (some of us) have sought to advance an agenda by political means. The church gasps, and yet is silent out in the world, in the face of discrediting and damaging stories like sexual abuse by clergy, financial malfeasance, and even blatant disregard for the least of these. In the midst of the massive changes of society in the last fifty years, much of the responsibility for our decline rests firmly on our shoulders.
Now we presume, and I would say quite erroneously, to prescribe, some simple reason for our decline. Some say, “The church has forgotten to uphold the authority of scripture!” To those, the church’s increasing liberalism is the perfect scapegoat for our problems. To others, “The church has participated in the persecution of others” seems to be the rallying cry. To them, the conservative voices are unfeeling, active persecutors of others. Sadly, it is not so clear-cut, just different.
We are living into the greatest change the church has seen since the Protestant Reformation. People who watch the changing times note that every 400-600 years the church makes a dramatic change. While old, previous movements still continue in smaller numbers, the church takes a turn for a different model in light of a different society. In short, God is always doing something new.
That newness often results in our frustration. We do not understand what that means. We can either choose to look at the issues that have lead to that change or else resolve to die. Every massive movement of the church has both. At this point, we have been blessed in that the changes of our churches have been marked only by civil litigation (as scandalous as that is) and not by bloodshed (as in all other changes the church has experienced in the last 2,000 years.)
But wait. A phenomenological approach is wonderful for the historian, but many ask, “How does that effect my parish – TODAY!” The answer is not a simple one. It cannot be resolved with the assignment of blame. Conservatives and liberals alike are both losers and winners. This is change, and change is often perceived as loss.
As we age, more and more of our changes are losing ones. We lose friends. We lose co-workers. The only thing that seems to pervade our existence is change. In our churches, we see dwindling numbers and wist to look for what we can blame. The phenomenon is human, so despite what we may feel, it happens. In the 1960s, we had filled churches because the larger society supported institutional structures like the church. It no longer is so supportive. In some ways, we are to blame. We did not police our institutions. Then again, neither did Rome before the Reformation, so don’t feel alone. Each age is marked by failures. In each age people will seek scapegoats. In every age, that is unhealthy.
I urge you, in a time when the church is changing so rapidly, resist the urge to blame, project or perceive yourself other than those who are changing. The church is one body because we serve one Lord. Where there is division, Christ is divided and that is a scandal to the world looking at us. Liberals and conservatives are shadowy reflections of one another. In their division, we see reflected every major challenge that the church has ever faced – and will one day face again.
Change – it is constant. It will be perceived as loss. It will be celebrated by some, and vilified by others. God’s people are processing from glory to glory. Take heart. The same Jesus who has overcome the world by his own death, will overcome this as well.