The popular group Hozier has a hit song “Take Me to Church.” Lest you think, however, the title reflects the current youth culture’s longing to return to the Church they have abandoned, think again. One line in the lyrics goes like this:
“If the heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week”
“A fresh poison each week.” Sobering words. And, representative of what many young people think and feel about the Church today. To say the Church across all denominational lines is suffering is an understatement.
Christian Century says there is an average of nine church closures every day in America.
The Bishop of New York recently declared 100+ parishes will close or merge in their Diocese.
According to the Pew Forum, the Millennial generation has all but abandoned the Church.
It would not take much to conclude the Church is dying. And, in its present form, I suspect it is.
I have written extensively on this subject before, as many of you know. And, while some mistakenly think I, too, have left the Church, I have actually stayed.
Admittedly, I am not involved in the same ways as I have been in the past. Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope to “be the change I’d like to see,” as Gandhi used to say. I believe a viable future exists for the Church in all its historic dimensions, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical alike. I am working toward this end.
My own feeling is, however, the 21st Century Church future lies in offering “absolutes” to young people who do need boundaries within which to safely forge a real world faith. Those boundaries, however, must be grounded in facts, in honest inquiry, and in intellectual integrity.
Unfortunately, the Church has too often wrongly assumed what those “absolutes” must be. In other words, the Church that keeps trying to resurrect old, worn-out ways of thinking and believing, and pretend while doing so that those absolutes have never changed throughout its history, has decided already on its preferred destiny: the graveyard of history.
Here’s a sampling of some of the old absolutes to which dying churches and church leaders still cling today…
1. The Bible is inerrant and infallible.
2. Adam and Eve were real people, the first two to walk on planet earth.
3. Creationism is a credible explanation for the origin of all things.
4. Evolution is just a “theory” and, therefore, it is evil.
5. Theism or the belief that God is a superhuman who resides somewhere just above the clouds who favors his followers and answers their prayers.
6. Original sin is an infectious disease that automatically separates everyone from God.
7. Substitutionary atonement or the belief God that sent his son Jesus to pay the price for sin.
8. Homosexuality is abhorrent to God and, even if it is a genetic phenomenon, it must be rejected or held in submission.
9. As the only way to God, Jesus is going to return to earth one day and condemn all unbelievers to hell.
10. Hell is, therefore, the final destiny for anyone who does not believe in Jesus.
There are other “absolutes.” But these may be among the more familiar ones. It is many of these “absolutes” that I see Millennials rejecting outright. In other words, if you want to know why this generation has left the Church, look no further. You’ll find many of the reasons in these antiquated beliefs.
I have listed below a few of the “absolutes” a new generation of believers are embracing. These absolutes are among those the 21st Century Church of the future must embrace with both enthusiasm and devotion, if viability is the desired outcome.
I am convinced, however, survival is not the interest of many church leaders. In fact, there seems to be a kind of victimology disease from which many church leaders are suffering today. When I was in seminary, we called this disease a “martyr complex.”
Many blind leaders today have actually duped themselves into thinking that the widespread departures from their churches is somehow the fault of those leaving. It’s as if those leaving are in the wrong. That their faith is faulty. That what they believe is misguided.
It is, however, the same age-old blindness Jesus came up against repeatedly. As Father Richard Rohr has correctly noted: “Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was only ever only upset with people who thought they were not sinners.”
And, guess who thought they were not sinners?
It wasn’t those outside the Temple.
No, it was the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were wrong.
And, yes, it is the religious leaders in our day who are wrong, too.
Church leaders who cling to old ways of believing and refuse new ways of understanding “the greatest story ever told,” are victims of their own blind stupidity. They mistakenly think a change in their theology is a compromise of their beliefs.
They remind me of the stubborn Protestant preachers during the days of the Civil War. Many of the white, southern preachers proclaimed to their death their mistaken belief that slavery was ordained by God.
Slavery was never ordained by God and, as an erroneous belief, it could never be defended.
But defend it, they did…even unto their deaths.
History would be their judge and their judge history was.
For churches today to defend narrow-minded beliefs as “absolutes” shared by God himself is to adopt a similar path that leads to a similar end. No, there won’t be another war over such beliefs, I don’t think.
Instead, what will happen is what we see happening all around us today. Slowly, but certainly, methodically, people by the hundreds at first, but now by the thousands are quietly leaving these churches, or mindlessly participating for the sake of the kids, but they have little to no interest in what is believed, proclaimed, and promoted.
Such churches have become theaters of religious entertainment – those that appear to be thriving, anyway. The others – the ones whose death is more visible – are slowly becoming church museums like their counterparts in Europe.
For these churches and their leaders, I have a feeling history is about to repeat itself and, once again, preside over a slow and painful graveside eulogy.
Before mentioning the absolutes the viable Church of the future will embrace, however, I offer first this analysis for consideration:
My feeling is, there will always be a few “mega” churches around that stubbornly cling to old “absolutes” or worn-out ways of believing. Their seminaries will continue to produce mindless robots of mediocrity dressed up in collars and conditioned to hammer away on a building nobody really wants to build anymore. By their sheer size, however, they will successfully deceive themselves into thinking that their size means everyone attending agrees with their narrow theology and, worse, that God actually favors their narrow-minded thinking.
But they are wrong.
In both instances.
Those of us who try to carefully and honestly study these things know for a fact that such churches lose as many people each year as they appear to gain. In some instances, in fact, they are actually losing more members than they are gaining.
Nevertheless, they give the appearance to the uninformed that they must be reaching the multitudes.
They are not, however.
The real truth is, they are treading water, so to speak. Their actual numbers are declining. Revenues are diminishing. Layoffs are occurring within their staffs. Anyone on the inside knows this.
What keeps people coming, however, is the good music; the fact that their preachers are superior motivational speakers; and, mostly, the activities for children and youth against which small, struggling congregations could never compete.
There may be a few other reasons that create the illusion of growth. But this one thing is clear: for the most part, the growth these churches seem to be experiencing has nothing to do with widespread agreement among attendees with what is either preached or believed by their leaders. Other reasons draw them and, among the most prevalent I’ve identified already. The only other reason is because they have grown disillusioned by their former church and/or rigamortis has set in and they have lost interest in sticking around for the church’s funeral procession.
Strangely, however, church leaders seem to miss this salient reality.
We have just such a mega church in our city that fits this description.
Were it not for the multiple sites the church keeps starting here and there, the fact is, their annual report would show nothing but declines in both membership and attendance. By starting all these churches and combining their growing numbers with their own declining numbers, they successfully maintain the illusion of growth.
The real truth is, however, the mother church is suffering. People are leaving. Revenues are diminishing. Layoffs are occurring. Insiders…that is, the few in the know…are growing more and more disenchanted with what is all too apparent to those leaving – hypocrisy at the core of the beliefs.
Are they still big? Yes, of course. Do they still have “dynamic” worship services? How could they not? Their musical staff is made up of professional musicians, “the cream of the crop,” as we say in rural Kentucky.
Facts are facts, however, and truth cannot be hidden in the baptistry. The future looks rather bleak for this church and many other mega churches like it.
Conversely, we also have in our city a church like the one I believe will be the growing, viable 21st century church of the future. It is experiencing growth and vitality already and it has for many years.
More interestingly, however, it is a “city” church and, while others around it are declining and dying, it is growing, thriving, and has the healthiest mix of young and old I have seen in any church in America. And, I have been in literally hundreds of them representing virtually every denomination within Christianity.
More importantly, however, this city church embraces a different set of Christian “absolutes.” The kind I have briefly outlined below.
Consequently, in this Part One of a two-part post, it is my intention to outline the “absolutes,” core values, or beliefs that this church not only embraces but the absolutes I believe the viable, 21st Century church of the future will embrace as well.
In Part Two, I will more fully elaborate on these absolutes. Here, I mention them only for your reflection.
1. The universal need for union with God.
2. The innate goodness within all people.
3. We are a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints or a hotel for paying customers.
4. All people are created equal and equality for anyone is equality for everyone.
5. When we say everyone is welcome, we actually mean EVERYONE. Including the LGBT folk.
6. The Bible is our guidebook. It is not our “rule” book and certainly not our science text.
7. Jesus is “our way” to God. But we know our God is bigger than any of our beliefs about HER.
8. Doubts and questions are encouraged here. In fact, we believe faith is forged through doubt.
9. Stewardship is about money but also justice for all people and the care of God’s planet.
10. Heaven is not about “golden streets” any more than hell is about “flames and torture.”
Just like the others, these, too, are only a few of the core absolutes the thriving 21st century church of the future will embrace. But they represent some of the more important ones.
I remain hopeful.
As Saint Paul put it, “…old things are passing away. Behold all things are becoming new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
And, none too soon, in my own opinion.
And, in the opinion of the 3,500 people who will choose to leave the Church before the end of this day.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.