Is the Church Dying? Or Not? (and the answer is…)

Dead Church 1By the Rev. Ken Howard

this article was published on Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Posts blog on 6/11/14

The church blogosphere is heating up.  The topic is death… the death of the Church.  Or to be more accurate, the issue is a question:  “Is the Church dying? Or not?”

Of course, everyone has an opinion (including me), and as a colleague of mine once said, “not a thought goes unpublished.”  I must have read a half-dozen blog posts (at least) on the topic in the last several weeks alone…even tossed in a couple of my own. Opinions run the gamut. Some of my friends say, “Yes.” Some of my friends say, “No.” Some of my friends say, “Maybe so.”

The latest one I read, moments ago, by the Rev. Jason Cox of St. Columba’s, D.C., was entitled, “The Church Isn’t Dying, Christendom Is.”  He makes some good points, among them that (a) we are way too anxious about this “dying church” business and (b) good riddance to Christendom, which never was about the kingdom of God anyway but rather about the institutional Church getting into bed with the Powers That Be.

I come down a bit differently on this. (I know…you wouldn’t have it any other way.)

As usual, in large part I agree with my friends…on both sides. I say “The Church is ALWAYS Dying” and “The Church will NEVER die.”

Here are a few facts:

  • Fact:  Churches die. About 3,500 churches die each year in the U.S. alone. If it wasn’t for the 4,000 new churches that are born each year, we’d be in deep trouble.
  • Fact:  Denominations die. Actually, they split and the two parts die to each other. Worldwide, such schisms are creating new denominations faster than the rate at which we baptize new Christians.
  • Fact:  Ways of doing church die. Christendom is dead. It’s just that we haven’t gotten around to burying it, because sometimes we wish we still had that kind of power and influence.
  • Fact:  Change is death. Yes, the Church is changing, but change often feels like death…because it is death: the death of a way of life. That’s why change is so hard:  it reminds us of our mortality.
  • Fact:  Some churches would rather die than change. Many of the churches that have closed didn’t have to die. They might have lived on if they had been able to adapt to their changing context, but they could not bring themselves to face that kind of change.
  • Fact: Some churches die but pretend to be alive. Often, this happens because they are cursed with wealth. But churches do not live by endowments alone, but by hearing and acting on the word of God.

And here are a few truths:

  • Truth: Death is not failure (and failure is not death).  Unfortunately, both tend to be taboos in the institutional church:  uncomfortable topics about which about which we do not speak, perhaps because we view them with guilt or shame. But closing a church can be a healthy and even a courageous thing to do, if done well. No dishonor in serving a life worth celebrating, then dying. Meanwhile, failure can be a source of great learning and even a road to great success, but only if we talk about it. And if we avoid failure as way of life, we also avoid taking the risks that might lead us to greater life. To put a different spin on Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option…It’s a prerequisite.”
  • Truth:  Death is nothing to be afraid of.  If the Church believes its own teaching that death is the gate to eternal life, what do we as congregations and leaders of congregations have to fear? We are in the death-and-resurrection business for God’s sake (literally). Death ought to hold no power over our God-gifted capacity to live.
  • Truth:  Churches may die but the Church cannot die.  It is the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that gives life to the Church.  Our individual churches are temporal communities but the Body of Christ is eternal.  It is not the job of churches not to die…only to be faithful.

So, is the Church dying?  Or not?

The answer, of course, is “Yes.”

But the real question is, “How can we help our churches continually die in such a way as to be continually reborn?”

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One thought on “Is the Church Dying? Or Not? (and the answer is…)

  1. Fr. Ken, thus is one thought provoking faith restoring Blog! It’s folks like you that are revitalizing a church in Hospice.
    Amazingly the growth churches are those of the area Party. Here in Portland, Or. Growth is evident in emerging groups, we’re irreligious here. Mainline churches are withering with aging out parishioners. The did thing is Unitarian..a non-faith church is full.
    I go often to a Taize style RCC church..very small. The archbishop found out and had me
    Barred for being Old Catholic. The retired pastor and I say private mass over breakfast now.
    I incardinated with a low key old cath. Church with many parishes…all wholly owned. The Bishop is solid, well trained and demands continuing education and yearly police checks. Catches former RCC priests with abuse in their history trying to join us. No Way. The local Bishop of the RCC asks our clergy to assist since we’re known for hospice work.
    We’re both English and spannish and creating a dual seminary for our clergy and seminarians in both languages.

    Mainly it’s about being present and having both compassion and standards. If a gay clergy comes they must be chaste as do straight clergy. I’ll be moving to work on the seminary this fall. While in Oregon I’d say only 1% of those I know are church goers. Others are in fundamentalist in your face groups esp.
    Things are changing, perhaps for the better…!

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