COVID restrictions are lifting, church bodies are regathering, and old issues and future aspiration are being grappled. As I am reconnecting with pastors and churches since my unplanned sabbatical, I find both an expressed and implied question: "COVID is winding down. What now for our church, the mission, the ministry?” I have always been a novice historian, a bit of systems thinker, with a bit of historical theology and future thinking thrown in. Although my conversations are with individuals and local churches, there remains the big backdrop. Before COVID I was guarded about the speculation that Christianity had entered a 500 year shift, that the United States would be a secular country, and that the center of Christianity would be centered in the Global South church - geographically in West Africa. Now I am convinced all this is happening, and I am minute cork bobbing in the ocean. Except for a sovereign and gracious God, I would drown.
During my time out of the office, I did a lot of reading. Some of it was depressing in particular in relation to the decline of historic denominations. At the risk of boring you with data, since 2000 the American Baptist Churches USA has declined by 20%, the Episcopal Church 25%, the Lutherans (ECLA) 30%, the United Church of Christ 36%, and the Presbyterian Church USA 41%. The data from 2019, which includes all reporting denominations, is that 3,000 new churches began, almost exclusively outside the world of historic denominations, and 4,500 churches closed. Church closures predominated in rural/small town contexts. When COVID arrived, the Pew Foundation and the Barna group predicted 25% of churches would close as the result of COVID’s effects. Some scholarship asserts there will be a ripple effect of church closures for the next three years.
Coupled with COVID is a fractured and divided nation and society. While recuperating I read a fascinating article in the Guardian by a secular author who bemoaned the loss of the “Judeo-Christian consensus”. His premise was as western culture has become secular, and “religion” had been replaced by political ideology. Political ideologies, without the leavening higher values of “religion”, morphs into angry and win at all cost theologies in that political thinking, which becomes an object of worship. As a Christian, I think the author has a substantial point, but I would carry the thesis further in that political theologies as they impact the Church produce an idolatry that displaces and dishonors Jesus Christ. My first loyalty remains to One King, and in submission to the Lord, I expect often to repent for my sin and evil, receiving grace to live out my faith with the Body of Christ in a world broken and torn by evil. I grieve deeply that Christians are torn from one another along political, racial, generational, and class lines. We are all tempted to replace Christ with ideologies, which rationalize our comfortable evils.
What now in a world of recovering from a pandemic, division, yes even hatred, which are all impacting the Body of Christ? Post World War II church institutions are threadbare, some prayerfully discerning the future, and others are exhausted and defeated. Where do we go from here? We go to Christ. We go to Scripture. We practice hospitality and invitation. We meet others and share Christ. We, as a people in a broken rapidly changing world, practice humility, repentance, love, and seek the transformation of our world under Christ Lordship and love for his Kingdom. We need to grieve and release practices, conceptions, bad theologies. After all that down time reading, I wonder if we have made the journey into the future more complicated than needed. Isn’t our faith really about our salvation to the Glory of God and for a good and just world that reflects Christ? But we cannot in any healthy faithful fashion travel into the future - God’s future - without surrendering our lives and our church to Jesus Christ. What now? What posture? The only way is face down before Jesus Christ. As an historic association of churches, my prayer is ABC-VNH can travel together into being a future church where we have done our best because of and before Jesus Christ.
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