What Needs to Die in the Church

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!


misspurple1 said…
I'm a terrible writer, but I agree totally with this writing. I do believe we need to continue to love others as Jesus called us to do. We need to listen to each other, not always thinking of how we can respond to get our way. Change is a constant in life. Don't be afraid of it. I don't want to have to give up my air conditioning, my washer and dryer, my central heating and air, etc. If one wants to be a nomad living in a tent with a camel outside, got for it. Let's concentrate on loving one another. What is the matter with change and a great big adventure?
Unknown said…
Hm. Heavy stuff!
Oddly the early churches -- or better - assemblies, lived in the "mean time", i.e. expecting the end in their life time. Ironically, the gospel for today (John 17:1-11 shows a great love for the followers that have been gathered around Jesus ... in the "mean time", in the now.
LTD said…
Excellent! I'd also add (or maybe it's a subsidiary to "niceness") fear and avoidance of conflict needs to go.

I'd amend #4 to say "our obsession with meaningless numbers." I think collecting data is incredibly useful, if it tells us something, but the numbers for Average Sunday Attendance are not attached to anything to the best of my knowledge. I don't think we're very clear about what ASA is good for, aside from apportionment. What does it tell us about how people's lives are different? Are we changed after attending worship? Because isn't that what we really want to find out? Not how many people were there, but whether that made a difference or not. How do we measure that?

I also have real trouble with Average Sunday Attendance because it reinforces the perception that church is a place we go to, rather than who we are. So I guess I'd add the notion that "church is a place we go to rather than who we are" is something that needs to die.

Fr. Mark said…
Well done. I especially agree with point 7 about healthy clergy. I really don't know how anybody can be healthy in ministry without a good spiritual director and/or a goos therapist. I'd add in a yearly spiritual retreat with a good spiritual director, not just a self guided one if possible. Our bishop expects us to do this and has it put in our LOA
laughing pastor said…
The thing that get in the way of these words (which I totally agree with by the way) is that thing called salary. For those of us in full- time ministry our salary complicates this thing called ministry. The fact that our very livelihood depends on the contributions of the people we are to speak prophesy and Jesus tough live complicates matters. My therapy helps me in this matter....but it will always remain a challenge.
Maggie said…
Thanks for this post. It's one of the most honest I've read in a long time. Will share on Facebook.
David Clegg said…
I could spend hours, perhaps days listing all the things I find discouraging in the church today.
I expect generations before me would have highlighted much the same things.

But, if I'm honest, it's what I'm like - church is too 'heavy', then it's trying to be too 'hip' (and light). One moment it's too compromising in order to gain favour, the next it's too restrained by 'principle'.

My entire life I've heard people delivering their vision of God's message - often (seemingly) mutually exclusive interpretations of what God is saying to them. If indeed he's saying anything at all.

Perhaps I'm negative, but it seems there are far more Christians prepared to illustrate amongst themselves what they believe is wrong with the church, than those willing to illustrate to none believers all that is right with the church.

And really, what does it matter? what does it really matter what's good and what is bad?
It's between you and Him ultimately. If that relationship is right, the church is right.

The church is us. It reflects us. If the church is getting it wrong - then we are.
Great assessment of the state of the Church. Thank you so much!
We have ministries and groups that are dying because we can't deal with the truths in #10.
Anonymous said…
I practically did a happy dance when I read these words. Preach it!!! I have said for a long time that we Christians confuse "nice" with Christianity. Jesus kicked butt and let others clean up. Hmmm. Can't wait to read that book of yours.
Unknown said…
Excellent commentary...people want their church sanitized. That's not the way the early churches did it.
Dan Webster said…
Beautifully written. Your voice joins many. Here's someone your readers might enjoy. Bishop Greg Rickel, Diocese of Olympia (Western Wash.) at last year's Episcopal Church Building Fund's annual symposium, Buildings for a New Tomorrow. Worth watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZWTqCRm7RU
Very thought-provoking, stimulating, and, yes, inspiring. If we don't admit we're dying, we're in denial. If we don't prune, we'll stop bearing fruit (hmmm, isn't that somewhere in the Gospels?).
Tubbs said…
Loved this! Made me think of my own list!!!! Out of interest, what things do you think are worthy of praise / living forever?
revlauriebrock said…
Lots of things - I do love the Church and its mission! Above all, that we are a place of welcome for those who rejoice and those who grieve, that we invite people to speak their truths and hear what they say, and that we live a life of a faithful journey. I am working on a follow-up posts of things that need to be nurtured for the life of the Church!
Unknown said…
Thank you for this. I was surprised that Fr Mark, only, has so far commented upon your statement at point 6 (Six, not seven, Fr Mark) about the importance of clergy being well supported by spiritual directors, supervised retreats and, sometimes, real psychotherapy (or, am I extending your list unwarrantedly?) I admire Richard Rohr's work and have treasured his observation about what happens to unresolved pain. It gets turned outwards unto others. I remember, in my childhood and youth, meeting so many members of Catholic religious communities who were curmudgeonly, testy, angry and just downright unhelpful people. When we are psychically wounded we will inevitably pass our woundedness on to others. Unless I am willing to deal with my egoistic self, which will do terrible things in its determination to repair its offended pride, the pain will spread to those around us.
frphillip said…
But Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." Where is that in the "modern" Church of today? A lively tradition is workable, but do we even try to make it work?
A good blog, I'd say; I don't know your site, but want to see/read more. Thanks!

Fr Phillip
Franciene said…
Amen, Alleluia! Looking forward to that book
Thank you. Good Stuff. Off to an "Training Incumbents' Training Course" This week. Will try to get everyone from 3 diocese to read it.
Anonymous said…
I probably shouldn't say this on a pastors' blog page, but there's also the whole medieval guild structure to the clergy.
Scout said…
The first one is the most important (I guess that is why it is #1).... i don't even go to church anymore bc I am so sick of the white heterosexual male patriarchy. BLECH. It permeates everything.
Unknown said…
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the church could just stand tall and say: "Yes, we thought there was a God, but now it looks like we might have been wrong. Even so, we believe the church has important work to do. We have to be the source of moral teachings, with or without God."

Anonymous said…
Thanks for this article Laura. I work in the United Church of Canada supporting policies and programs for ministry personnel, and I could not agree with you more on the points you make about 1) setting clergy up for failure when we ordain/commission them because they are "really nice" or because we are trying to rescue them from ways in which they have been victimized. A hard balance to strike when also trying to create diversity and include voices and leadership from "the margins." It takes holy and rigorous discernment. 2) our tendency to cry "persecution" every time we are opposed in our views, values or behaviour. It's near impossible to challenge bad behaviour when the person guilty of misconduct gathers a support group around them who see them as the victim. Great article all around IMHO, but those two points resonated .You can change the name of the denomination, but the big issues are the same!
Unknown said…
I don't go to church because it's boring. They clergy aren't as smart as I am and I have to pay them? For what?
The songs are ridiculous and you keep asking me for money. For what?
Why bother?
Unknown said…
Scout, you're overwhelmingly White but heterosexual? You're disproportionately gay/lesbian, especially in the clergy, and you know it.
Jim K said…
Excellent article and enjoyed the comments. After 25 years in the church as a minister, my primary concern has been the reluctance of clergy and lay leaders to take risks for the sake of responding to the call to make a difference in the lives of communities and individuals today. We need to be continually engaged in the art of allowing death of what is not helpful to make space for what is needed.
Hannah Wilder said…
Laura, can you please say more about what you think makes a good clergy person? #5 is intriguing. What are the skill sets required to be an effective clergy person, from your viewpoint?

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