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The End of the Church?

November 13, 2017

Just based on the numbers, the future of the church is looking a little grim. The Protestant denominations that came out of the Reformation (e.g. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians) have been losing members steadily for over fifty years. The conventional explanation has been that these denominations were too liberal–they didn’t have a firm enough foundation of belief. But the loss of members has now spread to many conservative denominations as well. For instance, the Southern Baptist Church–the largest and one of the most conservative Protestant denominations in the United States–has suffered membership losses for ten years in a row, for a loss of over a million members. Their rate of baptism hasn’t been this low since 1947.

The Catholic Church is also seeing massive losses. If it were not for the influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America, the Catholic Church in the U.S. would be severely crippled.

Mennonite Church USA, which was formed in 2002 through the merging of the (Old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church, is hardly more than half the size it was fifteen years ago. Its agencies are seeing less support, and its higher education institutions are recruiting far fewer Mennonite students. Many are worried about the survival of MC USA.

Polls show that “none” is the fastest growing religious affiliation in the U.S. Among young adults, over 35% have no religious affiliation–a dramatic rise over just the past few years. But even older adults are dropping out of the church.

In Europe, the churches are largely empty. Nine years ago my family attended the famous York Minster Cathedral in England on a Sunday morning. There could not have been more than fifty people present; our children were the only children.

Is this the future of the church in North America? No, the church will not actually end, but is it destined to become a side-lined minority–perhaps within another generation or two?

Why is this happening? The answer, I think, is quite complex, with many different answers. For instance, why have the mainline Protestant denominations been declining for so long? I think to blame liberalism is too simplistic. Here are other factors which I think have likely played a bigger role: demographic shifts in the U.S. from the Northeast and Midwest (where these denominations used to be strongest) to the South and Southwest (where they have many fewer churches); more affluence which correlates with a lower birthrate; a bigger and more structured bureaucracy which makes it more difficult to respond creatively and nimbly; and less church planting and emphasis on evangelism. It is also true that these denominations have often been at the forefront of social justice, and conservative Americans have reacted against these movements.

Why are the Southern Baptists declining, despite their emphasis on evangelism and being situated in the growing South? I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if it isn’t because they became too conservative and (ironically) faddish. For instance, the denomination was taken over by fundamentalists in the 1980s, which was followed by a drop in intellectual integrity and credibility at their colleges and seminaries; the denomination then blatantly linked itself to the Republican party, overtly politicizing its message and position; and its attacks against LGBT persons has backfired with young adults who no longer find this approach moral or credible.

Why is the Catholic Church declining? It, more than the other denominations, has been debilitated by clergy sex abuse scandals. I think it is highly likely that this is due to an all-male, unmarried clergy, combined with a self-protective hierarchy. Also, far fewer men are attracted now to a profession that requires celibacy.

Why has Mennonite Church USA become so much smaller? The main reason is not that we have suffered a large exodus from our churches. Rather, a large number of congregations, as well as three conferences, have decided to leave MC USA and affiliate with other Mennonites. Mennonites as a whole are not declining (as far as I know); rather, Mennonites are moving around and creating new affiliations. As with many other denominations, the issue of gay inclusion, gay leadership, and gay marriage has taken its toll on MC USA. Some want the denomination to be more inclusive, and some want the denomination to be more restrictive. We are moving in an inclusive direction, but it’s hard to find a position that everyone can honor as being faithful.

Personally, I think the church (MC USA, as well as other Christian groups) can have a strong future. I believe this because every congregation I have been a part of has been vital, positive, and has shown the ability to grow. What these congregations have had in common is:

  • strong mutual love and support
  • guidance and grace
  • openness to outsiders and diversity
  • clear convictions with a strong biblical emphasis
  • strong emphasis on following Jesus and Jesus’ example
  • mature and capable leadership

I think the historic emphasis of the Mennonite Church on nonviolence is also a great benefit to our future vitality. Religion has gotten a bad reputation due to acts of violence. So a faith that shows love and concern for all people, and which avoids violence whenever possible, has a lot more credibility. Our emphasis on living a simple and responsible lifestyle, and living lives of service (rather than the pursuit of wealth, fame or power) also gives our faith communities depth and credibility.

There will continue to be social forces which will undermine some people’s commitment to the church. But our task, guided by God’s Spirit, is to make our community of faith so lovingly effective, so nurturing of wholeness, so full of hope, that leaving it makes little sense.

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