A Dying Church

[This post is reprinted from Immerse Blog]

“unless a kernel of grain falls into the earth and dies…”

-John 12:24

Maybe the best thing that could happen to the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash all that away—the church buildings tumbling, the church money all lost, the church bulletins blowing through the air like dead leaves, the difference between preachers and congregations all lost too.  Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which was all there was in the first place.—Frederick Buechner

It wasn’t the first time I had been to a church with a split personality. Seeking to be all things to all people, this downtown Presbyterian church offered two vividly different worship services creatively titled, “traditional” and “contemporary.” I had spent three days teaching parenting and youth classes and, on this final day of my visit, was asked to preach at both worship services. The first service was old-school Presbyterian. The gathered were elderly and formally dressed—ties, jackets, long, floral dresses. There was organ music, “Be Thou My Vision” and other timeworn hymns. The Gloria Patriwas sung as well as the Doxology. There was a prelude and postlude and a choir that processed into the sanctuary. The worship leaders dressed in black gowns and sat in high-back chairs alongside the altar. The liturgy was carefully scripted, the congregation smartly guided by crisp, pastel bulletins.

If 1980s Christian pop music is your barometer of modern culture, then the contemporary service was certainly contemporary. The somewhat younger congregation entered the sanctuary with jazzy, Christian soft rock playing through the sound system. There was a guitar-slinging praise band and a quartet of microphone-wielding worship hosts who walked loosely around the stage, chatting up the audience, encouraging folks to clap hands or stand up and “give God praise.” The music was pop-worship (one song was introduced as “the latest moving up the worship charts”), and lyrics and prayers beamed across a movie screen with backgrounds that morphed into a variety of inspirational nature photos. The pastors removed their ties and black gowns and sat in the pews, standing casually to read Scripture or recite prayers. The pastor later told me that this kind of informal service meets the needs of emergent Christians.

What struck me most clearly was the similarity in both services. Both seemed distant, abstract, with an air of performance and a sense that something was being covered over. There was an overconfidence in the worship leaders who ignored the spiritual poverty that pervaded both sparsely attended services. I had spent lots of hours with the church staff, listening to their anxieties about the declining membership, but their fear and confusion were never so apparent as it was in worship. I could feel the congregations of both services trying their best to will their way into some sort of vision or expectation of church instead of simply receiving the actual church they’d been given. In both services I felt this deep urge to stop everything and say to everyone, “You seem tired and lost and hurting. Can we stop playing church and just tell the truth about why we’re here?”

I felt particularly sad when I thought of the young people I’d met the night before. No wonder they didn’t want to attend church, or youth group, or anything to do with their church. I now realized that their resistance was actually a sign of spiritual health!

North America is a country obsessed with technique. We’re convinced that our problems, our longings, our spiritual need, our parenting, our marriages are best addressed through a change in packaging. We like face lifts, not heart surgery. Never mind that Jesus said all of our problems begin and end in the heart. North America, the home of Hollywood, places its hopes and desires in the material, the visual, the persona. In the church we hope that a change in venue, appearance, or program will bring renewal. We don’t see what novelist David James Duncan sees, that “our imperfect attempts to worship…are inevitably and enormously silly, inappropriate, and unworthy.”

In other words, it isn’t the worship technique that impedes us from carrying the freedom of Jesus. All forms of worship are equally broken and ridiculous. What matters to God is the spirit in which we worship, the honesty with which we worship. What seems to be lacking in our various Christian spiritual communities isn’t a lack of social media training or aesthetic worship spaces or accessible music; what’s lacking is an unwillingness to tell the truth, to turn to God, state our weaknesses, admit our confusion, and confess that we’re dying.

What if we could admit that we’re not very good at being a church? What if we could declare that we don’t know how to worship? What if we could confess (in front of our kids) that, after all these years—all the building campaigns, all the seminary training, the books, the spiritual revivals—the truth remains that we’re not very good at Christianity? What if we could admit to our young people that we’re not good witnesses to the life of Jesus? What if we could tell youth that we still feel an urge to hide our weaknesses, to present strength and confidence instead of helplessness and insecurity? What if we told our young people that we don’t really believe, despite Jesus’ encouragement, that our poverty and shortcomings are a source of God’s compassionate power in the world?

The real suffering in the downtown Presbyterian church I visited isn’t its declining membership, 1950s architecture, or outdated worship program. The problem, the spiritual blockage at this church and at many churches I’ve studied across North America, is its unwillingness to embrace its weakness. This resistance to claim its frailty keeps this church and everyone in it distant from the love and power of God. If this church could simply admit its limitations, if it could confess its grief, if it could claim its confusion as to how to worship in such a fast-paced culture—then maybe it could perceive the real gift it has to offer.

Because, hidden beneath its anxiety to keep up with the culture, hidden beneath its grief and disorientation, there is a deeper problem: This church doesn’t know how beautiful it is. The people of this church have somehow been tricked into believing the lie that declining memberships, outdated hymns, prayers, and liturgies that use antiquated language equal some sort of spiritual failing. If this church would only embrace its sense of failure, it might be freed up to find that it holds great treasures.

This church, like many declining churches, has something to give, something that is needed, and something that addresses the longing of the human soul. Freed from its anxious obsession to keep pace with the culture, if this church would simply slow down and take a look in the mirror, it might discover that it holds the keys to the kingdom.

Within their aging systems and structures, I encountered genuinely kind people who have a great capacity for wonder, for friendship, for care, for self-giving love that every kid in North America craves. If this church would only stop its anxious obsession with what’s missing and instead give thanks to God for what it has, its children might find a way to live with grace and passion, even amidst a culture that brands all of us as lacking.

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One response to “A Dying Church

  • Joel Zehring

    Thanks for this post Mark. I need to learn Jesus’s voice, and I need to learn to trust and obey his direction. I think a lot of Christians need to unlearn church and learn Jesus.

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