Recently, a friend who has been involved in pastoral ministry even longer than I have asked me what I thought the future of the church would be. It may be that since he had spent his life working in and for the church and was now sort of retired, he was wondering if his life’s work had any value. Or it just might be that he was making conversation.
Anyway, the more I have thought about his question, the more complex and confusing it seems to become. The state of the church today is not an easy one to describe and therefore, the future of the church is even harder to describe.
On many levels, the church, especially the church in North America, looks like it is in trouble. Attendance is dropping and those who do attend are getting greyer and greyer. I led worship in two separate congregations yesterday, one with 12 people and the other with 17 people. Both these congregations used to have much bigger congregations, full time pastors, Sunday Schools and even youth groups. Now, these small groups carry on, faithful but asking serious questions about how much longer they will last.
The church is also in trouble in terms of its image. I know more people who don’t attend worship than who do attend worship these days. Spirituality has become a popular trend in western culture but the church isn’t often seen as a valid avenue to develop spirituality. Even many whose spiritual journey follows the Christian path feel that they don’t really need to church–and have no problem expressing that lack of need and even encouraging others to avoid the church.
Even the church’s traditional public ministries of weddings and funerals are being expressed in different ways–and more and more, the church and its services are being ignored as people develop new ways to celebrate these transitions.
It is relatively easy to find all kinds of information about the decline of the church, the irrelevancy of the church, the dangers of the church, the evils of the church even. Thanks to the Internet, people wanting to show the dangers and difficulties of the church don’t need a pulpit–they just need a keyboard and internet access.
And the real problem facing the church today is that no matter how biased the article, no matter how poorly written, no matter how slanted the perspective, no matter how awful the claims made against the church, everyone who writes against the church is tapping a deep vein of truth–the church today, as always, is not perfect.
And while some organizations may get to hide their imperfections behind PR firewalls and confidentiality agreements, the church’s imperfections–both real and imagined–get shouted from the rooftops for all to see and hear and pass around. Even the most dedicated church member probably has at least one bad story about the church and since we live in the Internet age, that story can be and probably will be made public.
When we look at the very negative images of the church that are so common today and couple that with the statistical reality that in Canada, less than 20% of the population actually attend Christian worship regularly, things don’t look too good for the church. If I were a new pastor just beginning my career in ministry, seeing all the negative concerning the church might encourage me to get qualified in something else just to be on the safe side.
But after looking at all the negative stuff, I still have to deal with the reality of my pastoral charges–the 12 and the 17. I have heard some of their stories and will hear more of their stories in the future. Some of those stories will be about negative stuff associated with the church in general and our churches in specific. But next Sunday, we will still gather for worship. We will sing some hymns and choruses, maybe even with an accompanist, and pray some prayers. I will preach a sermon that most will listen to most of the time. We will lament the lack of numbers even as we are shaking hands, hugging and asking how the week has been, if the cold in getting better and offering condolences for latest tragedy we have heard about.
We will be the church–for how long, we don’t know. But for now, we are the church and we will do church stuff, even if it seems somewhat futile in the light of the stats and reports coming from everywhere and everyone.
May the peace of God be with you.