A colleague of mine whom I respect said something the other day that made me wonder. He said that living organisms grow and dying organisms contract. He was talking about the church. By this he meant that the church is dying because it is losing members and therefore needs to start gaining members now if it is to recover life. It sounds like a reasonable and airtight analogy from nature.
Is it true that visible and quantitative decline is an inexorable slide into death? If true, is it always a bad thing?
When I was in college an exchange student from Africa came to our church in upstate New York. His name was Taboh. When he arrived it was winter. Riding to our town from the airport he looked out the window in great concern and asked, “Why have all the trees died?” We explained to him the phenomena of winter in the northern hemisphere and deciduous trees. Don’t worry, we said. The leaves will come back in the spring.”
Just because they have lost their leaves doesn’t mean the trees have died. So, in nature: loss does not always precisely equal death. Things can stop growing, even appear to be dead, and yet still be alive. Deciduous trees are one example. Better examples might be caterpillars and butterflies, and acorns and oak trees.
Shrinkage and loss are not always bad. It doesn’t always mean extinction. Sometimes populations in nature need to be thinned for the sake of their own survival and future thriving.
Nature is decidedly non-linear. Circles, spirals, and waves are more descriptive of the way nature works, than inexorable straight lines. Furthermore, individual life forms in nature, even whole species, may pass away; but the biosphere itself as an integral, coherent system, remains. Any child who has seen The Lion King knows that even death is part of the circle of life.
So: just because the Presbyterian Church is in a long, slow decline in terms of membership and influence, does that mean it is dying? And even if it is dying, is that a bad thing, in the larger scheme of things? Or is it a sign of approaching metamorphosis? Or even resurrection?
I suspect the Presbyterian Church as a centralized, corporate denomination, probably is finished. This particular ecclesiastical manifestation was not that venerable or original anyway. It has only lasted several decades, and most of that time it was in decline. Before we adopted this corporate model, we followed a different model, and a different one before that. The original Form of Government from the 17th century was wildly different and breathtakingly shorter than the one we use today. Presbyterians around the world adhere to very different ecclesiastical structures. If we consider Christianity generally the breadth of different kinds of order and government is even more spectacularly wide and inclusive.
Yes, our particular manifestation of church organization has been shrinking at a good clip for 40 or so years. This has been causing us no end of institutional panic… but not enough to actually get us to change very much. It is demoralizing. It has incited an endless cycle of blame between left and right. But neither side has seemed very willing to adjust their approach, until very recently. It may be that we are losing our old leaves so that new ones may grow in when the time comes. It may be that our form of doing church is obsolete and slated for extinction. It may be that we are in the deconstructing chrysalis, slowly being reformed into something new and heretofore unimaginable. It may be that this is the slow deflation of an artificial balloon that quickly inflated from 1945-1970, and that we are getting back to “normal.”
Churches have to be small enough to grow. Jesus used a seed analogy in several places. Seeds are small but full of life and potential. A small group of committed disciples is much better placed to witness to the good news effectively than a larger group that includes a high percentage of members whose commitment to Jesus and the good news is low or non-existent. When the church is burdened by distractions like building maintenance, not offending this or that person or group, divided loyalties, nostalgia, and so forth, then it is not giving its full attention and energy to following Jesus. Even if such a church is “successful” by the world’s standards, it will not necessarily be a potent witness to the good news.
If losing members helps us follow Jesus better, then we need to lose members. And vice-versa: receiving, listening to, and being influenced by new members might make us all better disciples too. The purpose of the church is not to grow in terms of gaining members and money. It is to follow Jesus. I think that if we follow Jesus, we will grow in quantitative terms. Jesus himself promises this. The early church demonstrated it. But what the church needs to do right now is to put all its energy into following Jesus.
God is unconcerned that we maintain our institutions, our theologies, our traditions, our heritage, our labels, our budgets, our membership rolls, our careers, and our other ego-centric baggage. God wants only one thing, which is that people follow the One sent into the world to be our example, liberator, healer, and life.