“If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
And you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
Isaiah 58 (adapted)
Every year, 5000 churches close their doors for the final time. This according to Simon Brauer writing in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
The Pew Research Center for Religion in Public Life seems to echo Dr. Brauer’s findings. In an exhaustive study of over 35,000 Americans, across a wide range of age, socio-economic status, gender and race, the good people at Pew found that over the 7 years between 2007 and 2014, Americans identifying as Christian dropped 8%. In same period, people identifying as ‘atheist, agnostic or unaffiliated’ rose 6%.
For younger Americans, the decline is even more pronounced. Fully 36% of 18 to 24 year olds do not attend religious services, along with 34% of 25 to 33 year olds. Over 40% of both groups do not identify with any form of Christianity. By comparison, 70% of older American continue to claim to be Christians.
There’s a lot to take from this information (and for any of you that have people in your families or your lives between 18 and 33, it might be worth a few minutes to ask how they feel about church; and what they might be looking for in a spiritual community).
One thing that appears to be clear is that the church – in all its forms – is struggling to find relevancy among younger Americans. Which does not bode especially well for our future.
Unless something changes.
It may well be that younger people – marrying later and having children later than their parents and grandparents, may come back to the church, or synagogue or mosque at some point in the future.
So one approach to the question is to wait for those currently outside the church to change, to come around to the reality that they are in need of the particular expression of community the church offers.
Another approach might be to consider how we in the church might best meet those currently outside our walls, to adapt to meet the changing circumstances of our time.
Two thousand years ago, the church faced a similar question. The communities that first formed in Jerusalem began to migrate across the eastern Mediterranean. For the first few decades, they were almost exclusively Jewish followers of the Way, believers that God’s messianic hope for creation that been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.
They enjoyed stability and some growth. But then came a crisis. Increasingly, Greeks and Ro-mans and others had sought a place at their tables. And new habits, new practices began to com-pete with the old.
Many of these communities inevitably folded, to be reabsorbed into their older Jewish synagogues. But others saw the crisis as a time of opportunity; and they adapted themselves to wel-ome these new people, even if it meant changing the way they did things.
That we are here 2000 years later should be testament enough to the fact that church endures best and lives most faithfully when she is willing and able to listen to how God is speaking something new into each new generation.
For the church in our time and in this place, the operative question may no longer be ‘why are we in decline,’ but rather, ‘what are willing to do to open ourselves to new possibilities.’ The question may be to ask what role we still have to play in the life of our members, our communities and our world?
The answer to that question is varied; but it centers on one central idea: vocation.
What does the church need to do to create a sense of vocation among our members that will invite others to join our life? What are we doing to transform the world?
It’s a big question, of course. But transforming the world is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls each of us and all of us together to do – and transformation begins at the level of personal relationship, with the kind word, the generous offering of food and clothing to those who need it, the openness of people who don’t look like we do or speak our language, the willingness to make a place for people to come as they are, not as we expect them to be.
2500 years ago, an unknown prophet spoke a word of hope to people struggling to figure out whether or not God had any more use for them. The answer wasn’t too complicated: live with a generosity of spirit, feed the hungry, welcome the outcast, be kind to one another … then your light shall rise in the darkness.