A threat has been identified! We live in anxious times. To be sure, there is talk of infection, contamination and containment everywhere! While the threat is serious and may impact how we do church at times (for instance we will provide hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes this Sunday as needed, and will invite people to greet one another in only in ways they are comfortable… For instance, if you don’t want to shake hands, that’s OKAY, fist bump or “elbow bump” instead and everyone will accept and celebrate that precaution). Neither the coronavirus, nor the seasonal flu is likely to be a serious and existential threat to the life of most churches (or most people, statistics suggest 80% have only minor symptoms, according to CBS news 3/2/2020).
Similarly, there are constantly arising “threats” to the health and well-being of congregations. Some center on finances or power, others on disagreements about doctrine, practice, or pew color. Currently, for instance, there are deep disagreements about the practice of faith in the United Methodist Church relating to human sexuality and how and in what way congregations welcome and include all people (In my opinion if there is a threat here it is not by any means posed by one side of the disagreement or the other, but by the potentially toxic ways the dialogue can unfold). For some congregations these difficult discussions pose a threat that could be lethal, but these disagreements- and others like them- are not really the virus that threatens the church in an existential way, in my opinion. These other “threats” in fact may only serve to distract and weaken the Church for the real and persitant threat it will likely face for the rest of my life and ministry.
It is high time that Christians everywhere begin to awaken to the real threat to faith and practice as we know it: the Secular Age. What do I mean by that phrase, “secular age”? I mean an era in which how most people’s thinking in our society has changed. A Canadian thinker, Charles Taylor, describes several significant ways thinking has changed: 1) We no longer live in an ‘enchanted’ world in which people look to or trust explanations beyond the scientific, 2) We live in a deeply materialistic world that is very wealthy and has many alternative avenues to pursue meaning and flourishing, 3) A concept of self which is highly individualistic has fully emerged. People no longer automatically value or think first about community values. People think about time and history differently.
As you think about it, you probably can identify these changes in the thinking of our society. All three of these trends have been in progress since WWII. All of us have been impacted by them to some degree. Here’s the thing, however, the process of secularization is rapidly increasing in speed in places like Indiana in the last 20 years. It is now bearing fruit in a host of other ways outside the church as well as we see attitudes shift, for instance, in relation to other institutions such as government. We observe this shift more closely to home in dozens of churches, located in each and every town in Indiana. Many were once thriving congregations, especially in county seats, they could average 200+ in regular attendance easily. For reasons of economic change those days are gone (jobs in many small towns have disappeared and become centralized in larger urban areas, agriculture has centralized into fewer an fewer families farming more and more acreage). Yet, the economic does not explain the whole problem. The way people think and relate to each other, to truth, to community, and to meaning in life is all shifting too. Many of those once mighty congregations are now half the size they once were. Unless we learn to do ministry in different ways that engage our communities in ways we never have before, the slide will continue. In fact, the slide of attendance may continue in many places no matter what is done. I believe there is hope that vital churches can emerge from the ashes, nonetheless, if Christians carefully study and respond to their changing mission field.
We can’t ignore the important conversations we have to have or anything else that might constitute a “threat” by one definition or another to the health and vitality of a congregations. In the same way we will be vigilant about disease, we are wise to be vigilant about the health and vitality of our faith communities. At the same time, we should not focus all our energy and time on the things that wont ultimately constitute existential threats. Particularly in the life of the church, there is a bigger challange than areas of dispute or conflict on which we too often focus. The bigger challenge is this: How do we build a faith community and continue to share Jesus Christ in a culture that increasingly places less value on either?!
My fear is that as a church we may end up focusing so much time of the threats that have been identified (disagreements in the UMC, etc) that we may miss altogether the REAL threat, the one that most people can’t quite put their finger on or exactly describe: the secular age.
Over the next few weeks I am going to continue to blog here about the secular age, what it means for church, and the potentially hopeful future for our local church and the witness of Jesus Christ, if we are patient, calm and ready to adapt. I hope you’ll keep up with the conversation!