There are many in American Christianity who survey the landscape and complain that the church is under attack. I am not one of them. I look around and see, in American Christianity, an embarrassment of riches, both metaphorically and literally.
The church in America is unusually powerful, exerting remarkable influence on the cultural and political system it inhabits. A few complainers notwithstanding, the general public sees no problem with the longstanding practice of presidents employing “spiritual advisors”; the military faces no serious critique for continuing to sponsor a chaplaincy program; the most constructive programs run in the nation’s prisons are sponsored and maintained by religious organizations; no one as yet has mounted a serious challenge to the tax-free status of any organization that claims religion as its reason for being; and every week—though not as pervasively as in years past—Sunday mornings are widely accepted as sacred, with communities ceding the time to religious observance. This is the influence of Christianity in America: the Jewish Sabbath is Saturday, and the Islamic Sabbath is Friday, but Sunday—the Lord’s Day in Christian tradition—gets all the press. So, despite paranoid protests to the contrary, I’m not terribly concerned about the security of the church as an American institution.
The church in America has benefited from the laissez-faire posture of other powerful institutions. Without significant intrusion from government, business or other social movements, the church has been free to flourish. Diversity of belief and practice is widespread. Whole industries undergird and append to the church’s secure base.
And yet the church fails to thrive. Membership rolls in churches across the country steadily decline every year. Congregations and denominations split in bitter disputes over money, power and piety. Adolescents complete their confirmation and confirm to their parents that they’re done, thank you very much. Revenue to churches from wedding planning and hosting is shifting to hotels and resorts. By some accounts, the church isn’t simply failing to thrive, it’s free-falling.
Oh, it’s not as dire as all that. But there are some serious, unchecked, intrinsic problems in the shared space of Christianity and contemporary culture, with its peculiar philosophies, politics and priorities. There was a time that a church centered a town; the tall steeple oriented the surrounding terrain, the bell tower kept everyone apprised of what time it is. That time is now past; the church is on the peripheries of relevance, the steeples themselves are quaint anachronisms that embarrass some and whisper sweet nostalgic nothings to others. The church as we know it is failing to thrive; it’s dying on the vine.
But that’s not why I left.
This is the first of a series of posts--"Between Churches"--chronicling my departure from our church of several years and our exploration of the church in our area. I welcome your feedback.