Joe Orso, of the La Crosse Tribune, featured my blog in his article today. Thank you Joe! I appreciate the questions you asked and the time you took to visit with me about what I hope to do with the blog. Orso’s article is titled Pastor Hopes Blog Connects With All Ages, Community.
In his article, Joe said, “I talked to Jordan about attempts I’ve seen online in which Christians trying to reach out end up using technology to remind people who have left the church why they left.”
This sentence assumes that our decline has been due to people leaving the church. Of course, there are some who have left the church, but the decline we are experiencing is not due to people leaving. Rather, it’s a combination of funerals, sociological factors, and the difficulty of figuring out how to be the church in a society that has changed so much over the past few years.
The funeral part of the quation is self explanatory. Over the past thirty four years, we’ve averaged 26.7 funerals a year: more than 900 people.
In earlier times, funerals were normally offset by baptisms, but this is not the case today. There’s been a major shift in society with which the Church (all mainline churches) still needs to grapple: the world around us can no longer be considered a Christian society.
Now, to some that statement may sound like I’m just another in a string of preachers condemning people for waywardness. I’m not. When I assert that the world around us can no longer be considered a Christian society, I point this out as a sociological reality that stands in contrast to the past.
Those who study such things, point to 1960 as the end of what many call Christiandom. From 1960 on, sociologists say, there has been a major shift in America. Prior to 1960 it was almost a given that most people were connected with a worshipping community, as had been the case for centuries in the western world. 1960 is chosen as a date for the end of Christiandom for symbolic reasons. It’s the year when a theater in a small community in one of the Dakotas made the decision to open on Sunday and succeeded to ride out public pressure to the contrary.
Today, we live in a post-Christendom world. This is not to say that the message of Jesus Christ is obsolete and to be thrown aside. Rather, it is an acknoweldgement that the assumptions presence in the past can no longer be assumed to be true in the world as it is today. Once, people automatically engaged the church when there was a birth. They were active throughout their lives. There was a communal understanding that to be a good citizen meant being connected with and participating in a Church. In those days, the church was the only show in town. There were no other activities, stores were closed, you couldn’t even get a tank of gas. This description no longer describes life in America.
We are not living in a Christian society. Those who have grown up in the time since 1960 no longer turn to the church as the primary source of community. We are in decline not because people have left, but because of funerals and a major shift in the community around us.
This does not mean that decline is necessarily our future. Yes, society has shifted. Yet, the call of Jesus Christ still spurs us forward in ministry. Jesus calls us to be a discipling community for all ages.
Now, let’s consider, again, about the role of numbers in the Church. The numbers of our church tell a story. They help us realize what’s happening among us, currently. However, they are not the motivation that spur us to ministry. We are not thinking about engaging in ministry in new ways so that our sttistics look better.
It’s all about the call of Jesus. He, who calls us to make disciples of all ages, calls us to do so in our local context. The Church knew how to do this in the world prior to 1960. Today, things are different. Yet, our model for ministry continues to assume that Christianity is the dominant force it once was. In this new world, we need to reclaim the call of Jesus to be a discipling community. For the sake of faithfulness, we need to keep our eye on what Jesus calls us to do.
The numbers tell us that we’ve not yet figured out how to be the church in this new world. Those who are most likely to be present among us are aged 65 and above. We need to figure out how to be a discipling community for all ages. We already do a good job for those who are older. We still need to figure out how best to disciple younger people in the faith.
This is our biggest challenge.