Seems like you can't swing a dead cat...or a thurible, since we're talking church...and not read an article, essay, blog post, or reflection on how the mainstream church is dying. Statistics show us that regular Sunday attendance is dropping, fewer Americans give less money to churches, congregations are closing, and we won't be asked to the prom, either. Then we get the response articles, essays, blog posts, and reflections about how, no, the church isn't dying because we are re-inventing ourselves, we have committees to vision change, and Jesus loves us.
Jesus does love us, and the church, this oddball, quirky, community of faithful and not so faithful exists because of that very love and the Holy Spirit. And yes, the church is living and dying - at the same time. We preach it. We ought to do a better job of living it.
One thing stands out when I read these articles - that very few admit, quite honestly, a few things in the Church need to die. So, without further interruption, a few things that have lived w-a-y beyond their expiration dates in the Church:
1. Structure that continues to silence, belittle, and repress those who are not in the traditional ruling class. As one friend said about the white heterosexual male patriarchy, "It's been a good millennial or so run, but it's over." Others would like to be at the table, so move over.
2. Denial that these oppressive structures (and people) exist simply because we are the Church. They do. They continue to do damage to people. It's time we faced this reality and did more than pass resolutions to address this abuse.
3. Half-baked liturgy so we can be cool and hip. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Be faithful, authentic, messy, and honest in our worship. Leave cool and hip to Jay-Z and Beyonce.
4. Our obsession with numbers. Case in point: Parochial reports, which focus almost exclusively on money and numbers, further reiterating that unholy belief that bigger and richer is better. Also, clergy, quit padding your Average Sunday Attendance by adding in wedding and funeral attendance and just making things up. It's not helpful...or honest.
5. Ordaining women and men simply because they are spiritual and like church. We set them up for failure when the Church refuses to acknowledge how challenging this call can be and the particular skill sets needed. We are now somewhere in the 50% range of clergy who are ordained and leave the ministry within a decade. Time to get honest about how this changing church needs changing ideas of clergy.
6. And, while I'm on my soapbox, pathologically unhealthy clergy. The Church will not heal your wounds or be your bff. I say this frequently - I do not fully trust clergy who don't regularly see a therapist or spiritual director. If you aren't willing to do the hard work of self-examination and soul work, don't offer yourself for ordination. If you are ordained, do the hard work. Richard Rohr has it so very right - what wounds we don't offer for transformation, we transmit to those around us.
7. The assumption that the Church and/or her clergy will meet each and every need you've ever had perfectly, when that need arises, without you having to communicate said need. Yeah, we're not that good.
8. Inauthentic dialogue, committees and task forces that meet to hear themselves talk rather than suggest courageous action, and ridiculous gatherings like cardinal rectors clubs (yes, those exist...still). No one's got time for this.
9. The use of "persecution" by some to mean, "My opinion has been challenged by others with differing thoughts." I'm not sure any mainstream Christian in the United States can complain that s/he is being persecuted simply because someone offers an often broader, more inclusive understanding of God. Opt for more accurate words, like challenged, annoyed, upset, or bothered. When you've been burned at the stake because you prayed in public over your Panera sandwich, imprisoned because you celebrated Christmas, or stoned at your workplace because you participated in the Great Vigil of Easter, we'll talk.
10. Nice-ing ourselves to death. We are called to love, to be kind, to be honest. Jesus was not nice (and I'm working on that book, so keep your pants on) and we do not covenant to be "nice" to each other as Christians. Nice will not tell you your drinking has become problematic, your anger is an issue, your boundaries are invasive, and your pants are indeed too tight. Love finds a way to do all these things with dignity.
Yes, the Church is dying. It has and will continue to do so. We as Christians accept and understand as best we can that death is part of life, that death is part of this thing called faith. Death is scary because we don't know what comes afterwards. We may make our song at the grave, "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia," but fear is singing harmony. So we desperately cling to what was, to those things which tradition or habit or just lack of imagination. We become the walking dead, still technically functioning on some level, but refusing to submit to the mystical transformation of God that demands...yes, demands...we enter the tomb and die to experience resurrection.
The Church has been dying since its birth on Pentecost. And it has been living since Pentecost. The Church is a living spirit. Like all living spirits of God, we wax and wane. We have times of feast and famine. We are the embodiment of death and life. Perhaps instead of bewailing the death of the church, we can be the people of faith called into being on Pentecost and trust that death is part of our life together. Things will change. Beloved traditions may have lived their full life; new experiences are birthed. Change happens. Life goes on. Amen. Alleluia!