Obsession with news about declines in church attendance and denominational affiliation drive me nuts. It diverts attention from focus on gospel proclamation. It encourages refocus on church growth by the numbers. It creates a market for church marketing schemes by the dozen. And it raises clergy and lay leader anxiety over who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who has the larger market share. It’s a cross between reporting on major league team standings, and odds making on which major car company will survive.
We can’t seem to help it, and I’ve been a part of it. Some years ago I helped create a massive ad campaign for a parish in a large city, and chaired a committee charged with developing diocesan marketing plans in a rural part of the country. In my own defense, my intention then and conviction now is that if it isn’t about proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s going in the wrong direction. This isn’t our church, whatever the denomination. It’s God’s church. If what we say and believe about Jesus is true, the future of the church is out of our hands. Our only job is to proclaim the gospel as faithfully as we are able, which is not easy to do. Since it is our job, and not an easy one, it needs to be our primary focus at all times in every place, but what makes it so difficult?
Let me offer a few observations for your consideration.
We have a tendency to imagine ourselves taking huge leaps of progress, overcoming enormous obstacles, when the issues demanding our attention are less imposing, more local, and require the hard of work of persevering with small steps where progress is hard to measure. Mastering small steps toward uncertain success is not a compelling path toward ecclesiastical greatness.
We live in a time and place where many people don’t go to church, not because they don’t believe in God, but because they don’t care much one way or the other. They get along just fine without going, and can’t see what they’d get out of it if they did. Christianity may remain the de facto American religion, but there are others, so what makes it better or more right? All they do is argue with each other, so why bother? It’s hard to persuade people who don’t care.
Some denominations have distorted the scripture to make it serve political agendas inconsistent with what Jesus taught. Others have adopted a fundamentalist way of expressing Christian faith that rejects things scientific or intellectual. While they attract some adherents, they repel the greater number who ridicule them for their gullible naiveté, and assume that’s what Christianity is in every place. People can be very gullible all by themselves, but who wants to associate deliberately with a church full of them?
What attracts some to conservative evangelicalism is the same thing that motivates a great many of us: the desire to know the right way among all the ways that are not. Black and white thinking is common. Some things are good, some bad, some right, some wrong, it has to be one or the other. But classical Christianity declares that following Jesus leads on an uncertain path, knowing is hemmed in by unknowing, and God still speaks in ways new and uncomfortable to our ears. Why give one’s life to a tradition that won’t stand still, can’t declare absolute truth?
Of course some denominations do dare to declare absolute truth, and with it theological warfare on any who disagree. Less combative denominations may not go to rhetorical war with others, but throwing a few rocks is not out of the question. The same remains a popular sport within denominations as cliques take aim at one another. Why would anyone want to get in the middle of that?
Then there are the armies of theologians crafting impenetrable philosophies of religion that leave ordinary inquirers squirming in confusion and boredom. Good grief!
Those are only the basics. They exist within a society buffeted by accelerating social and economic change, some for the better, some not, that tend to shove ordinary people toward more conservative or more liberal poles. What they really want is for the world to slow down long enough for them to figure out what’s going on.
It’s all part of what makes proclaiming the gospel so difficult, and why maintaining primary focus on gospel proclamation is essential. Think of Paul, Barnabas and Silas wandering from place to place preaching to the curious. A few successes, many failures and small starts; they didn’t spend much time worrying about numbers, they just proclaimed the good news of God’s love as revealed in Jesus Christ. But the gospel they proclaimed was more than just godly love. It also introduced a greater reality than can be experienced through ordinary daily life. It wasn’t an imaginary reality grounded in ancient myth, but a hard core reality grounded in the real life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. To the Greeks they were Greek, to the Jews they were Jews, to the Romans they were Latin, to the small town they were rural, to the big city they were urban, to the uneducated they were basic, to the educated they were profound. It wasn’t hypocrisy, it was fitting the good news to the context in which was proclaimed. The gospel was always at the center. It was never displaced by anything else. Everything else was displaced by the gospel. They may not have got everything right, but they set a good example for us to follow.
To be sure, denominations differ in how the good news of God in Christ Jesus is proclaimed and understood, and differences between them are not unimportant. The Anglican tradition of the Episcopal Church, that is both Catholic and Protestant, is where I am most comfortable seeking, finding and celebrating God’s presence in my life. Sacraments and liturgy mean a great deal to me. It’s not the same as the Baptists, Methodists, or Romans. But that doesn’t make them wrong. They have different ways, some I can’t agree with, but their ways serve their members as well as mine serve me.
Someone might object, yes but what about the conflicts and scandals that are tearing denominations apart? Don’t they collapse Christianity’s house of cards? They’re realities that have to be dealt with. The church, as institution, is ever in need of reform. But even in the midst of the most troubling controversies, keeping the good news of God in Christ Jesus at the core guarantees that the church, God’s church, manifested in the worship of assembled Christians, will not fail. It may be that some institutions housing the church will be exposed as frauds and failures, but the church will not fail.