The decline of the church has been a topic of conversation for several years among scholars and writers who discuss these matters. Diana Butler Bass a church historian who has become one of the more helpful commentators on contemporary Christianity . Diana Butler Bass writes and reports extensively about this decline. Part of the evidence she cites is that 1 in 10 Americans considers themselves “ex-Catholic” according to 2008 Pew Research and only a quarter of the population attends a worship service in a “typical week.” Her assessment is both honest and hopeful. She said in a recent TCU Ministers’ Week Lecture, “System fail does not mean Gospel fail.”
Richard Douthat in his much discussed article for the New York Times entitled, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” identified the Episcopal Church’s liberalism as the reason for its decline. Douthat argument rests on two assumptions. Assumption 1–the Liberal trends were made to appeal to people. He wrote “Yet instead of attracting a younger, more open-minded demographic with these changes, the Episcopal Church’s dying has proceeded apace.” Assumption 2–the conservative retrieval or return to traditional Christian configurations is the answer.
Both writers maintain description of the church and it’s position in the world in terms of a left/right, progressive/conservative, liberal/orthodox dichotomy. Forecasters often identify the demise of the church and it’s potential for recover, reformation or revolution in the church’s capacity to respond to new needs and expectations of people. Yet, I wonder how the issues might look if we spoke of our situation in terms of a portion of biblical narrative rather than the categories available to us through culture.
I have recently been working my way through Jeremiah and I am frequently reminded of these discussions and others as I listen to Jeremiah’s words to an exiled Judah. No, our exile did not come out of a violent experience of culture. No, we have not been physically displaced. We cannot compare the severity of our growing displacement with the oppression experienced by the 6th Century BC Jews. At the same time, because we lack these salient confrontations with reality, we also may not see clearly what is taking place. We are like the exiles in that increasingly we find ourselves at the margins of the culture.
Increasingly Christian faith enters the American public as a stranger in a strange land What lessons might we learn about living faithfully in exile? First, we can accept the changing situation as a context for readdressing the level of your faithfulness. In the early portions of Jeremiah, the Babylonian captivity is understood as God’s act to bring about the repentance of the people. Even going as far as declaring the Nebuchadnezzar is God’s servant (Jeremiah 27:6). Today, we might not believe that God orders national affairs in order to discipline and chastise God’s people (maybe some people do, I don’t). Regardless, learning to see our situation through this biblical narrative means asking questions about the nature of our faithfulness in the midst of this changing situation.
A second recurring theme in Jeremiah that I find both instructive and challenging is Jeremiah’s confrontation of prophets who give answers that sound good but are in fact not from God. One particularly poignant example occurs in Jeremiah 28 where the prophet Jeremiah confronts the prophet and priest Hananiah. Jeremiah listens to Hananiah predict that their captivity will last only two years more and agrees that he too wishes that it were so. However, Jeremiah later comes back to Hananiah and confronts him with the conviction that he did not receive that message from God and because he has proclaimed in the name of the Lord a message the Lord did not give him, the Lord would deal harshly with him. The moral of the story could be understated as: be careful of those who promise easy answers. More to the point, the moral is the way forward is not in assessing public opinion and responding to market demands.
A third message I receive from my reading thus far is the we have hope but that hope functions on God’s time-table not ours. I’ll admit that my reading of Jeremiah was getting tedious. It felt hopeless and heavy. Around chapters 29 and 30, Jeremiah’s tone begins to make a turn toward the hopeful. The principle difference between Jeremiah’s message of hope and the easy answers of the prophets Jeremiah condemns seems to concern timetable. The “false prophets” proclaim that deliverance is coming soon. Jeremiah’s message is that deliverance is coming after seventy years (Jeremiah 29:10). Our situation is long-term but temporary. In Jeremiah 29, Jeremiah gives an interim ethic that belongs to people in a time of exile.
Finally, Jeremiah’s message is theocentric. Jeremiah 30:22 contains this promise, “So you will be my people and I will be your God.” The problem I see with so much of the current discussion about the decline of the church is that prescriptions different commentators tend to give still function on an existing continuum. Either we should return to a form of Christianity that existed in the past (that we imagine existed in the past) OR that the way forward is to continue forward with a progressive agenda. All of this seems to me to be pots trying to tell the Potter how to mold the clay. On the other side of whatever contemporary trend we are in, God will have faithful people who have yielded themselves to God’s re-forming and they will have a remarkable experience of new life. As a post-script, I would say that we as Christian should remember that God’s work does not culminate with reorganization, reformation, or revolution. God’s work culminates in resurrection–new life emerging out of the tombs of real and painful death.