By Ben Irwin
Christianity is dying!
No it’s not.
Yes it is.
It’s just a flesh wound!
Anyway, it’s mostly liberal mainline churches that are doomed.
Evangelicals are in trouble too.
All right… we’ll call it a draw.
That basically sums up debate over the Pew study on America’s changing religious landscape.
The rise of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, can be partly explained by the collapse of cultural Christianity, as Ed Stetzer argues. Mainline churches have been hit the hardest because we had the greatest share of “nominals”—those affiliated with the church for reasons other than a deep-seated commitment to Christ. Our churches once enjoyed disproportionate cultural influence, wealth, and privilege—which is why half of America’s presidents were either Episcopalian, Methodist, or Presbyterian.
Those days are gone. Christianity’s cultural dominance is waning, so there’s little reason left to be part of the church other than a deep-seated commitment to Christ.
This is not a bad thing.
But to suggest, as some conservatives have, that liberalism is to blame—and that conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear—is painfully shortsighted.
For one thing, evangelicalism’s share of the overall population is shrinking too. Attempts to explain away this decline aren’t convincing. If religion were a business—and let’s face it: we treat it like one, which is why we argue over numbers like these—then somebody’s job would be in jeopardy over the drop in evangelical “market share” the last few years.
For another thing—to echo Jonathan Merritt—if liberal drift is responsible for a 3.4% decline among mainline churches, how do we explain a 3.1% decline among Roman Catholics?
In the US, Christianity as a whole is losing influence—evangelical, mainline, Catholic. We’re all in decline.
However, that’s bitter comfort for mainliners who are currently winning the race to the bottom.
The reality is, evangelicals have no business gloating over the decline of mainline Christianity, and faithful mainliners should take no comfort that evangelicals are in the same boat.
We have bigger things to wrestle with—namely, what the future looks like for us.
I’m an evangelical-turned-Episcopalian. I want my newfound spiritual home to have a future—for my kids’ sake and for the world’s sake. I believe we have something profoundly meaningful to offer. But change is coming, and if we fight it, we will die.
Here are six ways I think mainline churches can turn a shifting landscape into an opportunity for renewal…
1. Embrace the decline.
We don’t have the same cultural cache we used to. Good. As I’ve written elsewhere, privilege breeds complacency. The sooner we let go of it, the better.
It’s not the church that’s dying. It’s the edifice we’ve built around it. Let the edifice die. We’ve forgotten what church really looks like. The radically egalitarian movement intent on bringing heaven to earth is sometimes barely recognizable beneath the edifice.
As members of the group Episcopal Resurrection recently wrote:
“We have a choice before us. We can continue, valiantly and tragically, to try to save all the rights and privileges we have previously enjoyed. We can continue to watch our church dwindle until it someday becomes an endowed museum to the faith of our forebears. We can continue business as usual until we lose our common life entirely.
Or we can lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.”
There is no resurrection without death. What are we prepared to let die so we can envision a better way of being the church?
2. Embrace the meaning behind the liturgy, not just liturgy for the sake of liturgy.
I love the sacraments. They’re part of what drew me to the Episcopal Church. I love the way the liturgy soaks into my being, the way it anchors my faith. Big-box Christianity feels like a desperate imitation of the culture; for me the liturgy is transcendent and countercultural.
We Episcopalians can be quite fond of our liturgy. But there’s a danger in becoming too fond of the thing itself, instead of what (or who) it points us to. This was brought home for me when I read Matthew Drake’s heartfelt post on why the sacraments aren’t enough to bring him back to church:
If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus split. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.
I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion… [they] become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.
For many of us who’ve stumbled into the liturgy, it’s become a lifeline. It’s rejuvenated our faith. But it’s not a magic bullet.
If we’re counting on an influx of disaffected Millennial evangelicals all because we’ve got some liturgy, we’re in for disappointment. It’s going to take more than that.
3. Dust off our Bibles.
Sometimes I like pointing out to my evangelical friends that we read more scripture in a single church service than most of them do in a month.
If only we picked up our Bibles any other time.
Outside of church, evangelicals are 40% more likely than mainliners to read their Bibles. We have a complicated relationship with our sacred text. We’ve seen others use it as a weapon to clobber people. We’ve seen the damage a simplistic reading can do. We’ve seen Scripture used to prop up anti-intellectualism and justify all kinds of evil—oppression, exclusion, discrimination…
But to say we should read the Bible more is not to say we necessarily have to read it the same way everyone else does. We don’t have to use it as a weapon. We don’t have to treat it as a flat book. We can read it for what it is: a sacred collection of books with diverse literary styles, themes, and perspectives.
We don’t even have to understand everything in it.
But we should try reading it more. There’s value in knowing where our story comes from.
As Rachel Held Evans shares in Searching for Sunday, it was evangelicalism that gave her a knowledge of—and presumably her love for—the Scriptures.
What if we could do the same for our kids?
4. Recover the Great Commission.
One possible reason why evangelical churches have fared somewhat better/less badly is because they are more evangelistic. (There are other reasons, too, including higher fertility rates.)
For many of us who grew up evangelical, the word “evangelism” conjures memories of a heavy-handed sales pitch, simplistic reasoning, and outright emotional manipulation. As with Bible reading, evangelism is something we should do more. That doesn’t mean we have to do it the same way as others.
But let’s be honest for a moment: We’ve forgotten how to tell the story of Jesus. We’ve become too passive and complacent. The Great Commission does not say, “Wait for people to come into your buildings, then make disciples of them.” It says “Go.”
Or as Episcopal Resurrection put it, “We can no longer wait inside our sanctuaries to welcome those who want to become Episcopalian.”
5. Flatten our hierarchies.
Note that I didn’t say eliminate our hierarchies. Jesus chose some to be apostles. He gave them the keys to the kingdom—authority to “bind” (forbid) and “loose” (permit) on his behalf.
We need priests, bishops, and maybe even the occasional archbishop. But our hierarchies have grown top-heavy and bloated. We’ve lost sight of the fact that every member of the church is a minister, not just the ordained clergy.
If the post-Christendom church is to “travel lightly” (as the Task Force for Reimaging the Episcopal Church calls for), then we have to take another look at hierarchy. We have to streamline and simplify. We have to make it easier for people to do mission at the local level.
There’s an even bigger reason to flatten our hierarchies. Too much power consolidated into the hands of too few people invites abuse. If we are going to be communities where all are welcome and treated with dignity—where this is more than just an aspiration or a slogan on a church sign—then it’s time we take a paring knife to our power structures.
6. Welcome—really welcome—children in our worship.
One of the things I love about my church is the way my children are welcomed at the table. They can receive before they understand. Belonging precedes believing.
But we can go farther.
Recently I had a chance to participate in worship at another Episcopal church near where I live. The kids present were invited to gather around the altar for the communion liturgy. They helped lead the prayers of the people. They helped serve the bread and the cup.
It was chaos, and it was beautiful.
Children learn by doing, by participating. Children need to know they matter—that their presence in our sanctuaries is a blessing, not a burden.
When we exclude our children from our worship, we teach them that their presence is largely irrelevant, as Tom Fuerst writes. It’s no wonder Millennials are defecting from church in droves when they grow up.
If we want our kids to be part of the church later in life, let’s make sure we welcome them now as fully participating members.
I’m not under any illusions about the challenges facing the mainline church (and our sisters and brothers in evangelical and Catholic churches too). None of these six ideas are magic bullets that will single-handedly reverse the decline or reset the cultural landscape. There is no going back to the way things were. But that can be good news—if we embrace this opportunity to reimagine what it means to be the body of Christ.
Ben Irwin is a husband, father, author, and blogger who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.