For years now we have been aware of the decline of main line denominations in western society. There have been many attempts to make church more relevant or entertaining but with few exceptions the decline has continued unabated. Many, including myself, have thought that the church would limp along eventually fizzling out; more a whimper instead of a bang. But some recent events have led me to muse about a different possibility, a quick sudden end for the church.
In the US the Roman Catholic Church was recently slammed by a grand jury for the cover up of the sexual abuse of children. A New York Times reporter wrote an article about standing up during a Mass and challenging his priest on the matter. In the Times he calls for a boy cott of the church, saying, that, “Catholics cannot keep on filling the pews every Sunday. It is wrong to support the church.” He also says that church members should demand the resignation of every ordained person in the church and of the pope himself. (Nana Nathaniel, August 23, 2018)
What if congregations decided the hypocrisy of the church, and not just the Roman Catholic Church but all churches, was too much to bear and boycotted or resigned on mass? Is a sudden end to the institutional church possible?
I have been reading Julian Barnes’ book, “nothing to be frightened of.” Barnes is a Mann Booker Prize winning author and the book is a exploration of death and religion and philosophy. Barnes is an agnostic who starts the book with the wonderful line, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” At one point in the book Barnes muses about what society will do with all the church buildings and artwork that exist once the faith becomes extinct. I was quite taken by the thought that a very intelligent author sees this ending, this extinction as not only inevitable but near.
Will I be alive when the church ceases to exist?
My own congregation has been thinking through a ten year plan and as we do so we have been clear that we will need new partnerships, that we will not grow as a congregation. Now I start to think that at the very least we need to have in our back pocket a plan for closure. What legacy would we want to leave behind? Who could use the physical assets we have amassed?
These are hard topics for Christians. We continue to privately hope that people will suddenly change their minds and spirits and return to institutional religion but nothing indicates that this will happen. I treasure the faith story and consider it a powerful lens by which I have been able to look at and talk about life. It has lifted me beyond myself and connected me with the sacred. The death of the institutional church does not equal the death of the faith but writers like Barnes seems to consider that inevitable as well.
Is the end nigh? Maybe. Are we ready? Probably not but it is a thought Christians must take seriously.