So what now? Many at Oglethorpe Presbyterian have been taking part in our congregation-wide study Engage, where we spent the last two months taking a deeper look at how our own faith has been shaped by others, as well as the roles we all play in shaping the faith of others. In short, even though it might make us squirm, our subject has been Evangelism: or, how it is that we share our faith with integrity.
In case you haven’t read the headlines recently, we mainline Protestants are on the decline. In the last seven years, the percentage of the U.S. population that self-identifies as Christian has fallen from almost 80% to just above 70%. All stripes of Christians shared in the decline, none more pointedly than mainline Protestants, who went from 18% to 14.7%. In short, the status quo is one in which the American church shrinks.
Though it might be shocking to see these statistics, this really can’t come as a surprise to any of us. Simply looking at our own pews would have given you a hint of this. With summer here, we are more likely to notice the change, when our Sunday attendance is such that we could probably all fit comfortably in the choir loft. And yet, in this context, we are actually faring better than average. Over that same period, our membership numbers and average worship attendance have gone down, but not nearly as much as the national average. Meanwhile, our stewardship participation and giving have actually increased. In any case, we are part of this larger trend of a contracting faith.
I have read more interpretations of the Pew Research data than I care to comment on. Every single one of them tries to pinpoint why it is that Christianity, especially the mainline Protestant “brand”, is shrinking. I haven’t found any of them particularly insightful, as they act more like a horoscope than any kind of analysis, revealing more about the bias of the writer than concrete reality:
“Presbyterians are self-reliant; and yet, we desires relationships.”
“That is so true! They really know us!”
So let me run the risk of adding my own reading of the tea leaves, and put it this way: the status quo isn’t working. More important than that, though, the status quo isn’t faithful. Christianity should be comforting; but never comfortable. Any faith that takes the cross as its central symbol can never be OK with the way things are.
This recent news of decline feels particularly galling because it’s over a period of only seven years. That said, do you know what else is only seven years old? Twitter. iPhone. Facebook. And that’s just in the world of technology. For some of us, these are things that we already take for granted. For the youngest in our community, this is the world they have always known, where phones are things you use to take pictures and movies, look up information, listen to music, watch TV... In other words, we are in the early days of seismic shifts in the world. The fact that Christianity is affected should not be surprising. So what now?
The temptation is to move into panic mode: to implement strategies and throw programs out there in hopes that something sticks. And yet, faithfulness calls us to something different.
Our Scripture today, the first of the ancient hymns known as psalms, sheds light on this. It shares wisdom about the faithful, and how they are like trees planted by streams of water, the psalmist writes. They bear fruit and do not wither. That should be our goal: to plant ourselves, our trees of faith, as close to these streams of living water as we can. It is water, after all, not panic, that gives growth. What I want to encourage us to do is to move into regular spiritual disciplines, practices of being still and knowing God is God, of sitting by those streams of living water, of being well-rooted, grounded, and patient.
A couple of weeks ago I talked about the practice of Examen, created by St. Ignatius in the 16th century. It is a daily reflection exercise, a self-examination that asks two simple questions:
- What gave you life today?
- What drained life from you?
Over time, this is practice gifts us with recognition of those places where God is at work, those life-giving moments. We learn to live in life-giving ways, like trees of faith planted by streams of living water. It is when we root ourselves in faithful practices, when we come to rely on these habits, that we find ourselves bearing fruit: not just living or surviving, but thriving and feeding others!
And that, I believe, is how we address this crisis of Christianity: not by responding in fear and looking for institutional preservation, but by responding in faith and trusting God’s life-giving presence in Christ.
So what now?
I’m not sure why, but our conversations around our chapel space seem to be a perfect example of this to me.
A few months ago, we bid farewell to Iglesia Cristiana de Restauración, the Spanish language ministry that worked out of our chapel building for seven years (seven years, huh?). They have planted themselves in a new building, where there is room for them to grow and thrive. This left us with the question: what do we do with what is, essentially, new square footage in a community where space is at a premium?
Well, like good Presbyterians, we appointed a study committee. And before we talked about the what, we rooted ourselves in the why. We prayed and discussed and discerned our purpose, and therefore, the purpose of the space. Session then designated the space accordingly, as:
- daring – that is, that faith in Christ is a faith that always moves beyond what we know;
- incarnational – a space where our faith can be lived out in tangible ways that our community would recognize;
- evangelistic – a space that is meant for those who are not yet here;
- bridging the spiritual and the civic – a space that serves the community’s needs and our central purpose as people of God;
- flexible – a space intended for multiple uses;
- quality – it has to be done well, because beauty honors God;
- maximized – it will be used as much as possible;
- budget-building – that is, something that will not only be self-sustaining, but would contribute to our financial well-being so as to enhance our mission and benevolence.
What is surprising about rooting yourselves in the “why” first is how it sheds light on the “what”. So the committee generated ideas, sought and received your input, and took all of these possibilities into our many lenses of purpose. And, in good Presbyterian fashion, Session has recommended further study, focused on two possibilities in particular:
- Designating the downstairs space as a Kindergarten (and possibly an after-school program)
- Designating the upstairs space as an art/performance space and coffee shop (or a venue rental)
So what now? We research the feasibility of these options and make recommendations to Session accordingly. If you are willing and able to take part in this study phase, please let me know. It’s a short-term commitment. In the meantime, we will use the space several times this summer for worship and other events.
I, for one, am excited about all of this, as it gives us an opportunity to spend dedicated time in prayer and discernment for what comes next – to sit patiently by those streams of living water, to be fed and to feed. After all, what we are about here is to be and do what it is that God is calling us to be and do!
So what now? My friends, it’s time to engage – engage our faith, engage our community, engage one other, engage our God.
May it be so.