The church in North America is experiencing a crisis of meaning.
What the religious institution meant for previous generations and the role that sacred spaces play in community has changed. No longer the center of the community or our lives due to overcrowded schedules, for some the church has lost its place or, worse still, its way.
Years ago, there was talk of the “rise of the nones,” persons without religious affiliation.
Books were written. Conferences were attended to create more appealing messages from pastors and other Christian leaders. A more relaxed approach based solely on appearance, pastors returned to church services wearing ripped jeans and t-shirts.
But it still felt like an old wine skin with responses to cultural, social and perennial issues remaining unchanged. It was the same lip service just on a different Sunday.
The problem was not that they needed to dress it up, to “change the method — not the message.” Instead, what leaders were being invited to do was to think more critically about the implications of Jesus’ gospel for his disciples day to day.
The church leaders didn’t need a wardrobe change. They needed to take a long, hard look in the mirror and see that the church was reflecting much of American society’s ills and divisions.
The church looked less like Jesus and more like the emperor, who had no clothes on. And for all its religious meetings, Jesus’ message just wasn’t getting through.
There remained the need for something more than what persons read on the church program, something closer to, and in line with, Jesus’ steps.
There were, deep, abiding and soulish inquiries that were not satisfied in discussions during Sunday School. This was made evident with books that attempted to address the problem, whether it be messaging, membership or the messengers themselves.
Churches added more service times and different kinds of services: traditional, contemporary and blended.
You could worship with a choir or a praise team, with or without a hymnal. You could attend a church service in the morning or the evening, in-person or online.
Churches updated their websites, joined social media and included giving app options alongside the offering plate.
Older churches called younger pastors with young families to give the appearance of youthfulness and vitality, to shield themselves from the harsh realities of an aging congregation.
New churches could be found in shopping centers and strip malls. Alongside restaurants and clothing stores, they were a part of the mega-church model, complete with stages, spotlights and praise bands.
Now, fast forward to the pandemic and younger generations are not flocking to the pews. They can see from a distance that the church remains too traditional, too status quo, too comfortable with business as usual.
Generation Xers, Millennials and some pastors have also left the church to get closer to Jesus and to the meaning of what it means to follow him. They have joined the “dones.”
Always segregated due to the sociopolitical construct of race, the church in North America has always embodied the conflicts of our society. The church has faithfully represented the two opposing sides. We have never been united, always polarized.
We have not come together on a single issue — not slavery, not lynching, not war, not civil rights, not women’s rights, not prison reform, not the death penalty, not racism, not poverty, not homelessness, not guns, not school shootings, not crime, not police brutality, not the 2020 election.
I know, I know. No institution is perfect, right?
But we all claim to love Jesus and to identify as the body of Christ. So, what does that mean?
The Apostle Paul said to the community of believers at Galatia, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27-28, NRSV).
In his book The Forgotten Creed: Christianity’s Original Struggle Against Bigotry, Slavery and Sexism, Stephen J. Patterson says these verses are very possibly the first Christian creed, but he laments that “[this] creed has played virtually no role” in much of Christian history.
He continues: “How could it? The church became a citadel of patriarchy and enforced this regime wherever it spread. It also endorsed and encouraged the taking of slaves from the peoples it colonized. And within a hundred years of its writing, ‘no Jew or Greek’ became simply ‘no Jews,’ as the church first separated from, then rebelled against its Jewish patrimony, eventually attempting patricide.”
So, what does that mean for Christianity, for our confessions as baptized believers, for our weekly meetings?
All washed up and left out to dry, it is well-past time for Christians in North America and wherever else this applies to remember why we follow Jesus and what that means.