Churches never die
Transforming grump into gratitude
Jeffrey A. Schooley
“Depressing” was the only observation from one of my elders after a recent session meeting.
We had just reviewed demographic and sociological information from the remarkably helpful data aggregation web company, MissionInsite. The data revealed that much of our immediate community is “irreligious.” In fact, even most Christians in our area are irreligious. The single most agreed upon statement – weighing in at 51.5-percent of all respondents – was this:
“Jesus belief does not require church attendance.”
It isn’t just that we’re not getting non-Christians to show up to church; we can’t even get half of Christians to show up!
Depressing about sums it up.
I had already played with this data for weeks and sat with it for just as long before I brought it to the session, so I understood what they were feeling. But my feelings had slowly morphed from depression to hope. And that’s because I realized that what was fueling the depression was a lie.
When it comes to church growth – or even church maintenance – there is this pernicious, ugly voice always whispering lies in our ears. It says things like, “The church is dying on your watch” or “You don’t appeal to young families” or “Your best days are behind you.” This voice tries to convince us that there are just thousands of people out there wanting to come to our church, except we’re too incompetent to bring them in.
As I sat with the information, I eventually realized that this voice had been lying to me. I can see – statistically – that there aren’t a lot of people desiring to come to church. I’m not failing to bring in the desiring. I may be failing to partner with the Holy Spirit in generating a desire for Jesus Christ, but it is not the case that scores of folks are standing outside and I’m just too dumb to know how to unlock the doors.
There was, as you can imagine, great relief in this realization. But the greatest joy came when I returned my gaze back to the congregation that was in my midst. All of the sudden, I did not see them in terms of what was lacking, but rather as nothing short of a gosh-darn miracle! These are people who live in an irreligious community, situated in a post-Christian country, who still boldly proclaim with their lives that Jesus Christ is their Lord and their friend. Far from being incomplete, they began to look like spiritual heroes.
More importantly even still, I began to see those who were gathered for regular worship and prayer as a gift given by God.
So I’m changing my perspective entirely. I’m done worrying about whether the church will “die.” Such thoughts do not make sense when the church is always, inevitably a gift in the first place.
The church is God’s gift – his blessing – to the people of God. We do not earn it and we did not create it. We only receive it. As a gift, we can only wait with hopeful expectation. Furthermore, as a gift, we must receive it with gratitude – not grump. “Grump” is what happens when we buy into the lie that we make the church or we earn the church. As such, when we don’t have the church we want or feel entitled to, we end up grumpy.
Central to remembering that the church is a gift is also remembering that there are no second-generation Christians. Every Christian – even if the child of other Christians – is still there by the handiwork of God in their life. This means that the church is re-created every generation. In fact, I’d argue that it is re-created every year, every month, even every week.
If this is the case, then we can see just how generous of a God we have. Each and every week we receive the gift of a church. It doesn’t just “naturally” occur. It isn’t rooted in the procreative tendencies of its child-bearing-aged members. It isn’t the result of the “right” programming and events and worship style. It is always a supernatural, divine act. And when the church is viewed as such, gratitude is the only rational and faithful option left before us.
And just so this column does not get accused of being optimistically defeatist, I do not think anything written above should keep the people of God from their faithful task of proclaiming the Gospel to those outside the church. On the contrary, the fact that the church is re-created and gifted so frequently should keep us perpetually open to the surprises that God might give us in new members.
That neighbor who has told you he’s too busy with his kid’s hockey practice on Sunday to ever be able to attend church – though he’s glad, he sanguinely says, that you find pleasure there – can be part of the gift of the church God gives you next week. When the church is viewed as a gift, yesterday’s “no” can, indeed, be tomorrow’s “yes.” And so our continued asking is not an act of obstinacy, but expectation.
Churches never “die” because they don’t “live” – at least not in the ways we’re used to thinking about those words. To live and to die are terms associated with what is “natural.” But the church is far from natural.
So let’s put away life-and-death language when talking about the church. Instead, let’s discuss it in terms of received-or-rejected. Because that is all you can ever do with a gift – either receive it or reject it. And when we receive the gift of the church prepared out of God’s love for us, we will find icy grump melt into living water gratitude.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.