Is the Church already dead (and is that really a bad thing)?

A colleague and I were talking the other day about the decline of the institutional church and its uncertain future.

Certainly, the “big C” Church—and perhaps Christianity in general, although that’s a bit more subjective—seem to be in a death spiral.

In my own denomination, we’re closing churches at a far faster rate than we’re opening them. Most congregations are in sharp decline.

It’s not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when our structure simply becomes unsustainable.

Lots and lots of folks are bemoaning these facts, blaming this group or that brand of theology (they especially dislike those of us experiencing deconstruction) for their demise.

But I’ll let you in on a secret.

It may not be a bad thing.

“We have met the enemy…”

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that church as most of us have known in through the 20th and into the 21st centuries has, for all intents and purposes, already died. At the very least it’s on long-term life support.

And while a lot of people will want to blame secularism or pluralism or some other monster under our collective bed, it’s becoming more and more clear that the answer is staring at us from the mirror.

To cite the oft-overquoted animated possum Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Our insistence on doctrinal acquiescence at the expense of social liberation has birthed a toxicity that was bound to eventually overcome us.

Our pursuit of a God that values capitalism, empire, and supremacy narratives over the self-emptying, liberating way of Jesus has left us gasping on our death bed, desperate for an infusion of, ironically, more of the same religion that put us here in the first place, thinking it to be the only antidote for its own venom.

Who is your God?

To take it just a step further, I’d argue that it’s largely our insistence on inventing a “god” that mirrors our individualistic values that has greased the slope into oblivion.

Sr. Joan Chittester offers a poignant perspective:

In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. Some believe in a God of wrath and become wrathful with others as a result. Some believe in a God who is indifferent to the world and, when they find themselves alone, as all of us do at some time or another, shrivel up and die inside from the indifference they feel in the world around them. Some believe in a God who makes traffic lights turn green and so become the children of magical coincidence . . . . Some believe in a God of laws and crumble in spirit and psyche when they themselves break them or else become even more stern in demanding from others standards they themselves cannot keep. They conceive of God as the manipulator of the universe, rather than its blessing-Maker. . . .

Sr. Joan Chittester via The Center of Action and Contemplation

It’s the picture of “God” that the modern institutional church so often paints.

The God of wrath and punishment.

The God of distant indifference.

The God of green lights and princess parking.

The God of legalistic demands.

The God of control and manipulation.

Chittester goes on to say, “I have known all of those Gods in my own life. They have all failed me.”

I feel you, Sister.

“I’d like to change the world…”

The good news in all of this is that something new is being birthed out of the institutional church’s self-destruction.

More and more people are looking more and more deeply into the scriptures, their historical context, and the anthropology of the cultures out of which they grew, and discovering that there is indeed a better story.

A better story to be told.

A better story to be lived.

My own discomfort with institutional language aside, I told my friend that I genuinely believe that the church is God’s plan for the world.

Now, I probably don’t define any of those terms in the way religious folks do. But what I mean by the statement is that there is a way of being in the world that is just, merciful, generous, and thoroughly liberating.

That such a way of living is actually the Divine intent.

And that those who can live that way can literally change the world.

A new wind blowing

G.K. Chesterton once famously wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

I’d say that may be especially true of the Church.

But as I said earlier, I sense a new wind starting to blow.

I sense an awakening of those who look at the way of Jesus, see how difficult it is, and then pursue it anyway…with all their hearts, minds, and strength.

It’s no exaggeration to say that death is the only path to resurrection.

The Church as we’ve known it is almost certainly dying.

But maybe something is new is being born.

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