(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on May 29, 2015)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4, NRSV)
Last Sunday was celebrated in churches all over the world as Pentecost. Pentecost is the day on the liturgical calendar in which many Christians recall the story of the Church’s birth from Acts 2. However, in light of recent data that has been released from the Pew Research Center’s study on the religious landscape in America (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/), which has made quite a bit of news since May 12 when it was published, celebrating the birth of the Church seems to be over shadowed by its apparent obituary.
Since 2007, the drop of Christian religious affiliation in the U.S. is very pronounced: over seven percentage points in seven years. And while it is most significant in our young people, Pew sees the trend in people of all ages, in white, black and Latino, and in both college educated and high school only graduates. You can see that decline is evident in Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant and Catholicism. In fact, besides the modest rise of non-Christian faiths, the only group to experience growth—and tremendous growth at that—is the non-affiliated. Those are the people who are either agnostic, atheist, spiritual but not religious, or they might believe in God, perhaps even a Judeo-Christian God, but they don’t want to have anything to do with the church. That group went from fourth place in 2007 to second.
And so as I have reflected upon this data, I offer my obituary for the institutional church:
She was beautiful. She stood at the center of communities for centuries. She inspired arguably the most breathtaking art and architecture in the history of civilization. Her cathedrals took generations to build and cost the lives of many, and were sublime. The institutional church provided culture, education, communication and hope for countless people. She commanded our awe when the springtime dawn shown through her stained glass, when the pipe organ rumbled through our bodies, and when the stillness of the Easter vigil comforted our souls. She held sacred the space we needed to proclaim our joy and to cry our tears. The institutional church was here long before any one of us came into the world, but we mourn her inevitable passing before our own.
Her declining health began with a profound lack of unity. People took they eyes and their hearts of the person of Jesus, crucified and resurrected for their sake, and put them on their own personal preferences. Rather than turn to the power of Jesus to heal their differences, they preferred to split and splinter not over un-important things, but rather less important things, such as worship style and doctrine, politics and the color of the carpet. The institutional church felt it better to be homogenous clusters of racially and ideologically identical people, than to worship a God in Jesus Christ who died to save all of us from our sins.
The institutional church was weakened by her refusal to engage the communities surrounding it. Her people came once a week to hear about a God who in some places, just wanted them to be nice and happy, or in other places, a God that wanted them to be rich, or in still other places, a God who was angry at them and was going to send them to hell. But seldom did they take seriously a Jesus who proclaimed Good News to the poor, who served and healed those around him, and commanded his disciples to do the same.
But the death knell was her abdication of authority. Once she began to sense the gravity of her declining health, once she felt the disillusioned masses fleeing her doors, she stopped speaking up when evil reared its head in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, economic exploitation, consumerism, violence and war. It wanted not to offend those who wielded power. It wanted to attract those who were leaving by imitating the surrounding culture, by being better marketers, by conforming to the Democrat or Republican platforms rather than the Bible. She gave up the Gospel for a last-gasp grab of worldly power, which ironically means she abandoned the greatest power in the cosmos.
The institutional church, however, is survived by her only relative: the real Church.
The one, holy, true Church does not belong to any of us; she belongs to God. And because that which belongs to the God of the resurrection is destined for eternity, her obituary can never be written. Instead, we celebrate her birth again and again, each time the Holy Spirit blows into our communities and allows us, by God’s power, to find unity in the Body, serve the oppressed, and proclaim truth into the twisted face of evil that seeks to divide us. Praise God for the Church! Let us celebrate her birth by making the decision to be the Church again.