There’s a new study out that reinforces a trend that has been on church leaders’ minds for years. It is a Pew Research Center report, and it verifies that the number of Americans who identify as “Christian” has dropped while the number of Americans who identify as “atheist,” “agnostic,” or “nothing in particular” has grown.
To be sure, over 70% of the population still says it is Christian, so we could still override a veto. But the trend is quite clearly a decline, and it has been for years.
Now, different church leaders will react to the trend in different ways, obviously. Lament, panic, resignation. But I’ll tell you what I think about it – I think it’s a good thing.
I have spoken to quite a few people who have left the church for one reason or another. As I’ve heard their stories, I have noticed a common theme: The church they left is not the church of my experience.
They are leaving a version of Christianity to which I have never ascribed. They are leaving a narrow and rigid form of church that bears little resemblance to the community of Jesus as I understand it. In other words, what they are leaving is an expression of the church that frankly I would leave, too, if I was a part of it.
And nine times out of ten, among the doctrines of the church they leave is included some variation of this idea: “There is only one way to be the church – our way.” And so when confronted with a church that they find void of meaning AND the idea that this is the only version of church there is, the only option is to leave.
The thing is, that’s NOT the only option.
There is a diverse spectrum of churches, of denominations, of congregations within denominations, of people within congregations. There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to God, and so there is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to church, either.
Sure, it can be a confusing mess to sort through, trying to find a group of people to call your church. But the messiness is real. It’s the realest thing ever. It is truth. It’s people being people. It’s a beautiful mess. And sorting through the mess is most definitely worth the effort.
A significant problem is that we have spent too much time and energy insisting that church isn’t messy, that it shouldn’t be a struggle, that church is a neat and tidy proposition. The norms we project are actually false fronts, hiding turbulence and anger and doubt and fear. What a mess.
What a gorgeous, holy mess.
And so I do not lament that people are leaving. I’m not going to wring my hands and worry about the demise of the church. In fact, I celebrate the opportunity that arises. I am eager and excited to witness what the Holy Spirit is doing among the people who have left the church, what new expressions of faith are emerging, and what “church” is going to look like as we experience this messy, turbulent time together.
There are nicer things to call this mess, actually. Gil Rendle calls the present moment “our particular exodus,” a healthy journey through the wilderness to a new ecclesial identity. Phyllis Tickle says it is a “Great Emergence” similar to other historical “great” moments, like the protestant reformation, the east/west schism, and the monastic movement.
The only reason to lament people “leaving” the church is if your ecclesiology is so narrowly defined that it only contains your own personal understanding of what the “church” is. How dare we try to place such limits on what the Holy Spirit may be capable of accomplishing outside of the boundaries of what we think of as the church!
Instead, we who are the church should be celebrating the great work that God is doing in the world today, and asking how we might join in to help out! There's no need for us to be jealous of what God is accomplishing outside of the sphere of our understanding. The church is a mess, and I for one like it that way!