After a number of recent articles on the decline of church attendance, and in particular this one from the Pew Research Center, authors across the internet exploded into conversation. And argumentation. And frustration.
In short, the research shows us what we already know from experience. Few people claim Christianity as their religious identity. Fewer people attend Christian worship, and those that do, attend less often.
Responses seem largely summed up in defiance or desperation. Some defy the conclusions of the poll, suggesting instead that there's the same number of strong Christians, but due to the cultural shifts in expectations, fewer people feel the social pressure to attend church. The number of active Christians, this line of argumentation concludes, is relatively unchanged, so don't worry. Others despair at the loss of social respectability because faith's ostracization suggests to them the church's deathknell. The boat really is sinking, they seem to say, so let's just hunker down and enjoy ourselves while it lasts.
Reality, however, is something entirely different than these conclusions. The church is not destined for failure. Neither should we ignore the significant exodus of people from our communities. To borrow a phrase from a friend, God's going to build the church with or without us. But wouldn't life be better if we were a part of that new life?
That's where imagination comes in to play. A future of change is not a future of failure. Churches that look just like they did fifty years ago don't equate to success. As God works to shape the church of the future, God calls us to minister in the present. God calls us to live and work in this world, this culture, this place. That takes imagination. How can we faithfully hand on the Gospel we received in such a rapidly changing culture?
We need to reimagine our futures. Not as the glory days of the past, but rather as a trail blazed into the unknown. The decline in attendance suggests that fewer people are finding reasons to come to church. Can we imagine a future where our churches are flexible enough to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that reconnect with those who've left? Can we imagine a future where we learn to speak the language of others, such that the Kingdom of God becomes vital in the lives of those who've never attended Christian worship?
That's the story of Pentecost. God's at work doing a new thing, making the incredibly small church speak the languages of all people, all with the expressed purpose of introducing all people to Jesus. As the church imagines a future not based on past successes but rather on God's active work amongst us, then we may realized we're not destined to fail. God holds our destiny, one promised on the cross and secured with an empty tomb.
If we admit our need for transformation and envision a creative future guided not by our expectations but by God's Holy Spirit, then we can see a future worth living. A future where we measure church communities not by attendees on Sunday morning but by relationships created and redemptive work in the world. A future where we're more concerned with the inclusion of all than the exclusion of a few who aren't like us. A future where the Gospel doesn't allow our preconceived notions of faithfulness to slowly bleed the church of life, but instead to embrace the vitality of God's Holy Spirit that brings new life to our dry bones.
We shouldn't deny or despair for our present circumstance, but instead embrace the present as an opportunity to follow God into the future that Jesus created for us. God's building the church. Let's make sure that we're a part of that constructive vision.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.