The Pew Research Center recently released a survey detailing the American religious landscape (find article here). Some of the data indicates that there is a rise in those that affiliate with no religion at all. This trend is sometimes called “the rise of the ‘nones.'” Along with this upward trend is a downward trend in those that identify as Christian, regardless of the denominational affiliation.
Of course, without must surprise, the onslaught of moaning about the demise of the Church and the emphasis on ministerial techniques to reverse this trend have been plentiful. Some see it as the moral decay of a nation and shout to rally the troops so that they might retake Capitol Hill and reclaim some kind of power to assert their influence again. Others see it as a matter of ministerial, pastoral technique that will ensure recovery. So, plant churches because that’s “the most effective way to reach the un-reached” or market to a particular demographic or create programs that will get people hooked on the church (sounds like we’re peddling drugs). Or, perhaps, and this has been my tendency, it is a matter of better education of laity and pastors that will ensure the Church’s future.
But, unfortunately, those are all inadequate. They are woefully inadequate because they focus on “technique.” By “technique,” I mean developing the skill set to achieve a purpose or goal. It’s about management. Essentially, it’s about control. Finally, it’s about power. The underlying motivation for the above-mentioned techniques is typically motivated out of a desire to maintain or gain ground in the market-share of the religious (and perhaps non-religious) consumers. That’s the primary difficulty in reading the Pew Research Center’s survey – people are reduced to percentages. And, where people become numbers and percentages for a market-share, they cease to matter as anything more than a means to our ends. They become commodities, useful until used up. Their humanity is diminished, especially if they don’t serve our bottom line.
The result, with little, if any, exaggeration, is that people do not matter in the Church. Thus, the “rise of the nones” threatens our market-share kingdoms. It becomes a fearful thing to see this downward spiral, even if we don’t see it as bleakly as the survey paints it. The rise in the opposition to the Church or to religion in general is easily viewed as a threat to our longevity and viability. But, this is only a threat to a Church that does not know how to die, that has left the cross behind for the tools of management. Isn’t this the very thing that Pharaoh fears in seeing the rising strength of Israel? They’re too many and what if Egypt is attacked by other nations; what if Israel turns their strength against Egypt? So, Pharaoh orders them to make bricks, he begins building projects, he turns to technique in managing the loss of market-share. In so doing, he attempts to de-humanize God’s people. The end result is that Pharaoh has no real identity – he’s never named.
I see this turn to technique and the Church’s resistance to embrace dying as a move in line with Pharaoh. We see the rising threat to Christendom, want to desperately hold onto our power, and are willing to go so far as to de-humanize those whose rising power might threaten our own sense of security and privilege. When this is our position, we operate out of fear and self-protection. We create “brickyards” out of our sanctuaries that tell people to work harder, lest we lose more ground. And, in the process of de-humanizing others, we find that we have lost our identity. We resemble Pharaoh, not Jesus.
Personally, I have found hope in the numbers because I believe in resurrection. Yes, we must go through death, but Jesus has shown us that life is on the other side. I’m okay with Christendom dying, with the Church dying, with me dying because I know there is hope where God is at work and that life springs up from dead stumps, dead bones, and dead bodies where God speaks. New life is able to break out with the death of Christendom because we might finally come face-to-face with our own false claims and narratives. We might hear the Gospel again when it has been extracted from the cultural narratives that we have swallowed. We might stop relying on our own power to control the outcome and re-enter into the difficult work of imagination, wonder, and surprise. We very well might find that being crucified with Jesus will free us from the bondage of playing power games and developing leaders that play those games. Instead, we might find disciples utilizing the tools of towel and basin, bread and cup, and the cross as the call to serve others and “not lord is over them.”
I think Desmond Tutu’s response to the question about optimism in the midst of great travail is poetically potent: “I am a prisoner of hope.” Hope is not yet another technique of optimism that we must engender so that we can motivate people to a new future. Rather, it is a hope rooted in the gift of God’s ever-abundant, life-giving Spirit at work in the midst of the broken Creation calling forth a new Creation – a new heaven and new earth. As Romans 8 unfolds, we are in the midst of the groaning pangs of child-birth of the new Creation. We’re not always sure even what to pray. But, the Spirit prays with and for us as we await the redemption of our bodies, which includes social bodies as well. In this I find hope to actively wait and serve while putting aside the tools of manipulation, management, and control. The hope of God’s promised future allows the Church to die faithfully, seeing it as an opportunity for God’s new work of the Spirit to unfold among us. Church, move beyond the brickyards.