It seems that nearly everywhere in Christendom there is gloom and doom and the admission that our best days have come and gone. Therefore, without a friendly culture to aid and assist, it seems that too many of our Christian leaders have decided that the only job left is to manage the death of these institutions and church bodies. Like the people mentioned above, the goal is to control that death -- to manage the decline, stave it off as long as possible, and decide how it ends so that some sense of accomplishment can come even of its death.
In doing so, Christian leadership has become focused primarily upon the institution and not the faith. It is the work of institutional maintenance that seems to consume us now. How do we keep the machinery of parishes, schools, colleges, agencies, organizations, and such going for as long as possible -- without actually growing them. The gospel for this approach is “managed decline.”
Sometimes it happens that the population of an area, village, or even a city is in decline. My own home town faces an uncertain future of aging citizens, fewer families needed to run the highly mechanized farms, fewer business on Main Street, and a fight to keep the doors of the school open as the student population declines and the cost goes up. It is a place where the fight to survive is fought daily. The churches in that small town are in various stages of the same decline. They have fewer members, fewer dollars, and fewer prospects and so many of them are hoping at best for a holding pattern, postponing death as long as possible and managing the decline with as much dignity as possible. I feel for them and know their plight and pray for them. But that is not quite the same situation as denominational leadership which has decided that decline and perhaps even death are immanent and the best future is to slow the pace and push the actual date of that death as far out as possible.
In desperation some have decided to try anything and everything to reverse the trends. Screens, praise bands, torn jeans and tee shirts, designer coffee, comfy seating, and a mall style buffet of things to satisfy every taste has been tried over and over again. We seem locked into the idea that the only way we can grow is not to be who we are. Perhaps it is our own lack of confidence in the means of grace that now comes home to roost as we manufacture a new identity every week in order to attract the jaded who go from church to church in search of what is new. That is no more a viable strategy than to lock the doors to keep the faithful from leaving.
In fear some have decided to exchange the message of Scripture and the Gospel of Jesus' death and resurrection for a new paradigm of self-awareness, self-discovery, self-identity, and self-interest. These are always a day late and a dollar short of the cultural wave that floats such ideas and they spend their time playing catch up with the trends and clean up for the parts of their churches that offend against the new national conscience. But their pursuit of the obvious heard everywhere and the cause of the media that seems to drive everything now has not resulted in any growth or slowing the decline. The people leaving are not necessarily going to other churches. Perhaps this is the new churchly definition of quiet quitting.
Because they have always done it that way before, some go through the motions -- rehearsing week after week what they have always said and done but more as institutional maintenance than really being the Church. In a small congregation where a couple of our members transferred upon a job change, these young faces were actually asked to move out of somebody's pew. Ouch. It is mine until I die, anyway. I know that there are such congregations out there. I certainly do not think they predominate but it is easy to see why they would hunker down until the last person there leaves and turns out the lights. By all means we ought to serve the faithful who are there but by no means should we allow this to become the institutional form of shut-in visit -- a stop gap measure waiting for death.
There is an elephant in the room. No one will talk about it because those who tried were tarred and feathered. That is the absence of children in our pews. Either they exist but their parents are not bringing them or bringing them so occasionally they are not being catechized by the liturgy OR they are not there at all. Both are true. We have loads of children (and their parents) who hardly ever darken the doors to the church (increasingly absent even on the high and holy days of Christmas and Easter!). We also have loads of elderly without children in their homes and young who are not sure they want to marry or have any children. We have some problems here. A recent visit left me stunned as we went around the room updating each other on our families while many of my age said their children were never going to marry and they would never have grandchildren. It is a real thing. Perhaps we have presumed about marriage and family so long nobody thinks of these as God's order -- merely an optional choice.
I fear that we have not quite gotten to the point of trying with all our might to be who we say we are creedally and confessionally. That is the lifeline that extends into our bleak situation. No one has ever made another a Christian -- only the Holy Spirit -- yet why make the work of the Spirit more difficult by apologizing for who we are and acting embarrassed by the catholic and apostolic faith? Unless our Confessions are mere relics of our past, they speak of a lively faith, fully engaged with the lives of people, confident that the Word and Sacraments will do what they promise. Where congregations have a fuller liturgy, good music, solid Biblical preaching, faithful and lifelong confessional catechesis of youth and adults, and a presence in the community, they are doing more than managing their decline. Most, if not all, are growing! The point is this. God has placed us here not to preserve the past or protect our interest or to postpone our death. He has given us the life-giving Word to speak and live out before the world and with it the promise that He will shepherd, grow, and harvest His Church. We know what we have been given to do; it is about time we do it or we will have no choice left but to manage our decline until death claims our church bodies and our congregations.