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If the Church is Dying, Let Her Die. I'm Tired of Talking About It.

Last month I had the privilege of escaping to Richmond, VA for a few days to attend a preaching conference put on by The Bridge, a cohort for early career preachers. It was lovely. Unrelated to this post, but you should totally apply if you fall into the category of early career (first seven years) preaching.

Towards the end of the conference, we had an open discussion time with the entire cohort and speaker. It was then that I made a huge mistake. I asked a group of preachers if they ever think about the church dying while they're crafting their sermons. "Does that interfere with anyone else's writing? Just mine?"

My question went over about as well as you might think. We ended up sitting there for what felt like hours belaboring this idea that the church of today is dead, or not far off. It was a colleague of mine who finally interrupted the conversation by almost shouting: "I DON'T CARE anymore. I'm so tired of this question. Whether or not my church closes its doors or the church universal is dead, my call remains the same. And that call does not depend on me being employed by a church as their pastor." (I'm paraphrasing a bit as this was over a month ago). But man... were her words helpful to hear.

I, too, am tired of this question. I'm tired of major media outlets writing about it. I am tired of the blog posts about it. I am tired of disgruntled pastors writing about it. I'm tired of other pastors reading said posts and then arguing/writing about it. Frankly, in hindsight I'm embarrassed I even asked about this that night. If the church is dying, then let her die! Some of us are too busy to care because we are pouring ourselves into what gives us joy and purpose in this life: being the church for our own time and place. Personally, I don't think we can ever declare that "dead." I think we are mislabeling what church is.

If the church is dying, then let her die!

My wise, dear friend Ekama said to me (like the good Presbyterian she is) "You can't have a resurrection without death. The church NEEDS to die. But what is coming after? That's what I'm excited about. That's what I'm waiting for." This, I believe, is the point. Something new is coming. But rather than hold ourselves in hopeful anticipation of what that might be, some are too bereaved that the old comforts of home are no longer working for a generation of people who have done nothing but weather storms their entire lives.

Maybe I'm bitter about this. For instance, I went through my own "deconstruction" before we had a name for it. Before it was "COOL" if you will. Before there were Instagram accounts and blogs dedicated to the topic. I was weathering that shit all alone! Trying to figure out where I fit in the world of spirituality while still very much WANTING it to be church but not having much luck with it. Now that I feel firmly on the "other side" having put those pieces back into place, I find that the objective is not a finished puzzle at all. It's an ever-evolving spring of identity formation, worship, and communion with God. This will never be exactly the same from week to week nor should it! Why do we put that expectation on the church? Of course the church as an institution is failing us. We have taken the burden of spiritual health and well-being off ourselves and projected it onto an easy target: churches. I'm not sure the church was ever supposed to be the end-all-be-all for our spiritual lives. I think it was supposed to be a resource and a community-- not a cure.

This is also how we Presbyterians got the whole "Reformed and always reforming" tagline we love so much. We looked around at the community we created (church) and said to ourselves, "Wait a minute, this doesn't feel right..." And in response, we kept evolving into something that felt truer, more relevant, more spirit-filled than what it had been before. The problem is we still feel empowered enough to call out what we see wrong with the church but we no longer feel empowered to fix it, to reform it to what God is calling us to be. Perhaps that's because we feel hopeless or perhaps it is because we no longer care. I no longer feel responsible for making people care about something. That's not what I'm called to nor is it even possible for me to do. But I can give people hope. I believe there is still lots for us to be hopeful about.

I'm not sure the church was ever supposed to be the end-all-be-all for our spiritual lives. I think it was supposed to be a resource, a community, not a cure.

I spent a lot of time bitter and annoyed with my friends who all of a sudden were "too cool" for church or just didn't feel the church was what they needed anymore, "why bother?" they would say. Meanwhile, I was pouring myself into the church. I found a group of people I never would've crossed paths with otherwise, who filled my life with questions and color. They held me accountable to my Christian faith while also leaving me alone... letting me be to work out my own stuff but not feeling like that process had to be done in isolation anymore. Did I have to cut some ties? Yes and no. I prefer to say I "untied" myself from faith denominations and institutions that not only did not serve me but were harmful to others who did not fit neatly into a single mold.

That process of untying brought me to the Presbyterian Church (USA). And while our time together has not been perfect, my perspective on church in general has changed: I no longer expect it to be perfect. I expect it to be faithful, humble, in tune with the Spirit, and to an extent in tune with me, but nothing more than a vessel I ride through this life. The church is not responsible for keeping me from drowning in this life. That's between me and God. But it has proved to be a helpful liferaft when I needed it most. I do believe that I am responsible for being a good steward along the journey and leaving a vessel/boat/liferaft (whatever metaphor I've thrown around here, take your pick) for someone else to use once I've left it behind to join the great cloud of witnesses.

That is the conversation we need to be having: how do we leave this thing (church) better than we found it? Not whether or not the church is dying/dead. That is not for us to declare. But oh how perfectly indicative of humanity's hubris, to think that something we did not create and which we do not own, is ours to pronounce "Dead or Alive" depending on how we might be feeling in the culture of the moment. The church is so much more than that. perfectly indicative of humanity's own hubris, to think that something we did not create and which we do not own, is ours to declare "Dead or Alive" ...

So I guess in a way I've simply added to the noise of the conversation. But hopefully, this resonates with a few of you. If you're a pastor reading this, hopefully, this takes some of the pressure off of you as a clergyperson-- who has somehow been tasked with solving this problem while also being blamed for its origin. (lovely) And if you are a layperson, or "disenfranchised" church person, maybe this puts a little pressure/responsibility on you? A pastor/church is not in charge of your spiritual life, you are. How might this cultural moment be moving you to respond? And if the answer is away from the church, that's okay too. I think she'll survive. She's lasted a lot longer than you and I both have. That's gotta count for something, right?

To close, I leave us with these words from Pastor Melissa Florer-Blixer:

"I often pay attention to what might be lost in the shuffle of survival. Who is struggling to pay their rent? Who is missing from worship for several weeks? Who has gone quiet...? Who is angry and needs to be asked why? The work of attending fills my days.

I have little time left to worry about the church’s survival or relevance."

Read Melissa's full remarks here.

And thank you for listening to mine.


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