Can we save the American Church?
On Good Friday we visited a small church plant that meets in a middle school. The lunchroom benches we sat on were slippery; the space austere. The lights were off. Several lit candles sat on a table at the front. A hush descended on the small assembly, those who’ve come for a taste of sadness, a time to remember in word and song about the sacrifice of a Savior. Reading after reading, hymn and song, poem and homily — and soon, I was caught up in the beauty, the story, the response, the darkness and the promise of light, as each candle was snuffed out.
Afterwards the pastor (who knows my husband, also a pastor, and me) came up to give us a hug. He was encouraged to see us show up; he was visibly moved. After weeks of small attendance at his church, our very presence meant something. He and his labors were seen. The service was beautiful, rich, meaningful — well, as much as one can make meaning in a middle school space — but it got me thinking: Can we save the American church? What is one beautiful, small church body to do who desperately wants to love its place?
Are we are where we are today — with at least 38% percent of pastors wanting to quit, or church attendance down 30% since the pandemic began, and with most of us languishing — because of a pandemic? Is it because of scandals of abuse in the church? The celebrity fall-outs?
And what’s one struggling church supposed to do?
We’ve analyzed the situation. My books have been part of that analysis and there’s a million more I have on my desk at the moment to read. Several of them very good. But will we only analyze? Are we content to “mumble, mumble” when we get to the point of what we are to do? (In a recent Mere Fidelity podcast, Tim Keller talks about David Brooks mentioning the “mumble, mumble” effect that comes at faith leadership gatherings when we move from problem to action. We don’t seem to know what to do).
While each of these problems — abuse, secularization, focus on celebrity over faithfulness and fruitfulness, political polarization, burnout, unmet expectations, lack of formation (pick your poison) — are like another section of eroding soil of the American church, will we continue to simply dissect the problem? Are we pointing fingers while the Titanic sinks or are we getting into lifeboats?
Analysis is the first step — but lest we think that if we just knew more that we could change the tide, may we remember that the Christian faith is sacramental: meant to be experienced in our bodies; meant to point us to the transcendent that breaks in through our secular age; meant to be lived out and gotten into our bones and into our stomachs.
Knowing more cannot save the church. Experiencing more cannot save the church. Feeling more or doing more mercy ministry and justice work will not save the church.
Jesus will save his church. It is only as we are united to Jesus — in our days, in our weeks, in our worship, in the ministry of the Spirit, in our humility and in our suffering — that we will be a radiant bride.
So what do we do? We continue to sit in silence; we read our bibles; we repent. We practice fasting and feasting; we remember the sabbath. We tell our children the grandest story that is really and truly true. We invite neighbors to eat with us. We tell people of the hope we have. We show up to church, not to “get something out of it” like something to consume, but as a body to belong to. We organize our schedules not around the American dream, but around faithfulness to Jesus. These are some of our individual and corporate habits.
But we need more than that. We need to start new institutions. We need to take our spade and dig to the bottom of those institutions that are weak and crumbling to see where we can rebuild. Because institutions, as Yuval Levin says, are durable forms of culture. They are structures capacious enough to help provide for the “least of these.” Instead of an Instagram influencer model, institutions aren’t built on charisma or feeling and a sense that you’re always being sold something. Institutions help build our common life — not just in the church, but in a healthy pluralistic society. Institutions are slow to change but they’re also solid in a way that our current climate built on celebrity is not.
But to get there, I think we’ll all need to be quiet. To have conversations that aren’t always in public view. To read and reflect without turning it into internet or sermon fodder. To put down our phones and choose to be discipled by the word of God and our local communities instead of the latest and greatest on Twitter. Maybe something as small as going for a walk will be a small step to reorient you to your body, your place, and the faithfulness of God.
We can’t save the American church. Jesus will always save her — for the gates of hell cannot prevail against his bride. But as his bride, might we commit to both the local (in our own practices and our local churches) and to the global — as we learn the lessons from history and from the global church and as we seek to build institutions that are faithful and resilient?
For if the gospel is true, it demands the best and all of what we have: good thinking, faithful discipline, the willingness to love our enemies and practice self-restraint, genuine charity, mentorship, forgiveness and fortitude — all through the power of the Spirit who points to Christ.
There’s still much to be considered as we analyze how we got here (yes, analysis is important!) and also as we practice being the church. There aren’t glib answers. But maybe it’s not answers we need to solve a problem, so much as an encounter with Jesus and the faithful practices of the historic, global church. Perhaps “faithful presence within” (James Hunter’s phrase) is about a pathway through and less about solving a math equation. There are faithful paths well-trod through the ages that will move us through the morass.
In the weeks that follow, I’m hoping to share some of my own reading and practices and I’d be delighted if you shared your thoughts in the comments, too. What practices of faithful Christian life and belief have you seen?