For at least the past four decades, Christian churches have declined. Some have closed, many have had to alter their programs due to lack of funding, and most are simply no longer the vital institutions they once were.
Recent polls reveal that church attendance is decreasing every year and younger generations are not really interested in church. And a recent survey reveals that a growing number of pastors are quitting because they can’t live on the salaries their shrinking congregations can provide.
A broader historical perspective can be helpful, or at least instructive. It seems that every 500 years or so a major challenge shapes the nature and mission of churches. Since the time of Jesus, Christian believers were scattered throughout the Mediterranean cities of the Roman Empire and were often persecuted and discriminated against because of their opposition to the Roman gods. But around the fifth century, Emperor Constantine became a Christian and soon declared Christianity to be the official and exclusive religion of the Roman Empire. This Roman church grew and flourished throughout Europe and became what we call the Roman Catholic Church.
Again, towards the arrival of the new millennium, a major schism took place in the church. The Eastern or Asian branch split off to become the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church. Although this division may not seem important to us in America, it has significantly broken the structure of the European church.
We pass over the next 500 years or so. In 1517, a German Catholic monk, in major disagreement with the pope, nailed a paper with 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Thus began the Protestant Reformation, with the emergence of many denominations, each with its own distinct perspective on aspects of Christian theology.
And now, as we move through the 21st century, piled on top of the declining status of the church, comes the non-religious yet cultural impact of the COVID pandemic. And the church now faces uncertainty about how to emerge from what appears to be the next quarter century of change. We ask, where is this thing going, and also where is it taking us?
An Anglican bishop observes that “every 500 or so years the entrenched structures of institutional Christianity must be broken so that renewal and new growth can occur.” And he suggests that when this bursting occurs, as it seems to be happening today, we can expect three outcomes:
* A new, more vital form of Christianity will emerge.
* The organized form of Christianity, which has been the dominant form, will be reconstituted into a purer and more powerful expression of its former self.
*Each time these transformations take place, faith has spread – and has spread – in new and unexpected ways.
These are words of hope and suggest that even if we are unable to plan the future carefully, we must ride the wave of a new beginning that will bring a powerful and positive spirit.
Harry Bronkar is a retired Baptist pastor living in Seven Lakes. Contact him at [email protected]