Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Church Isn't Dying, Christendom Is

The Rev. Jason Cox
I try to keep a tight lid on my email inbox, but spam still gets through. This was a subject line from an email I received this week: “Is Increasing Membership in 2014 a Goal?” Over at HuffPost Religion, I saw “Why nobody wants to go to church anymore.” Episcopal Cafe led me to “The Church must die so Christianity can live.” And “What needs to die in the Church” from Dirty Sexy Ministry has been reposted on my Facebook wall so many times I lost count.

Anxiety about the state of the church is everywhere you look. Church professionals, lay and ordained, are constantly bombarded by books, articles, blog posts, Facebook updates, and on and on, all about how the church is dying, and why, and what we should do in response: save it! let it die! Often these recommendations come with a handy bulleted list.

I don’t think the church is dying, but it is changing. Or at least, the culture around us has changed, and we are--slowly, painfully--changing too. The question is, are these changes a cause for despair? Or hope?

We no longer enjoy the cultural hegemony that Christendom afforded--those many centuries when culture, political power, and the church were tightly intertwined. But I think this is actually a blessing. “Christendom” was never the Kingdom of God--it was just the church stepping into the role of the Empire, the same Empire that Jesus opposed and that put him to death. Christendom is dying, and we need to let it die.

And yet, we long to return to the full churches of the 1950s the way the children of Israel longed to return to Egypt, where they may have been slaves, but they had plenty to eat. But going back is not an option. Like God’s children wandering in the wilderness, we no longer have the oppressive stability of Empire to keep us safe. We “must learn to operate once again as part of a movement” (Lloyd Pietersen, Reading the Bible After Christendom)--more like the way Jesus and his first followers operated beneath the surface of the Roman Empire.

There is hope in this change, if we can stop longing for the way things were and start imagining the way things might be. We can’t recreate the church of the 1950s, no matter how hard we try--and why would we want to? With God’s help, the church that we are becoming will be more faithful, more like the topsy-turvy Kingdom of God and less like the hierarchical, power-and-money driven ways of the world. A church better able to preach peace and pursue it, to stand up for the prisoner and the captive, the poor and the oppressed. Not a bad trade-off, really.

The Rev. Jason Cox is the Associate Rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba's.