We all know that the church today is getting smaller. Denominations are dwindling; churches around the country are closing their doors; more and more people live without any discernible church connection. Sure, there is a rise of spirituality, but that rarely translates into involvement in a faith community. When someone describes themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’ it usually means their spirituality does not involve anyone else (and rarely does it involve any spiritual practices).
There are many ideas about why this happening and how we are to address this decline. Some say we should jettison the traditional church in favour for a new, contemporary, and relevant expression of faith. Old practices and ancient rhythms simply do not speak to the more modern tempered. Yet this does not actually solve the problem. Opting for a more contemporary skin does not actually address what lies behind the decline in the church. Underneath much of the experience of church decline today is the problem of individualism.
Case in point: For the past 10 years, my church has experienced decline. Some of this is because of natural occurrences in the life of a community. Parishioners have died, some of have moved away. However, what is most intriguing is that, while the active congregation has declined over the past decade, the parish list has remained the same. We haven’t actually lost members. So what is going on? The reality that we face, and that I assume many of us face, is that people simply do not attend church as regularly as before. Those who used to come three Sundays per month now come one, and those who attended only once per month now only show up every other month. The lack of attendance by those who belong to the church, I think, is one of the key reasons for church decline.
Importantly, this lack of attendance by once-active parishioners is not based on the church style. Rather, it illustrates a particular view of the church; namely, that church is a voluntary activity that one can choose to engage or disengage in at any time. The rise of language speaking to the church needing to ‘feed me’ is symptomatic of this individualist lens through which we view the church. When we view the church individualistically, we base our involvement with church on personal preferences. Likes and dislikes become the basis for how we value participation in the community of faith. Thus, when something better comes along, whether that be a sporting event or another community, one feels free to step away from the community of faith. It is precisely because of this individualism that simply replacing the traditional expression of church with a more contemporary one will ultimately fail to effect widespread growth. The different ‘flavours’ of church aside, we still live in a time when church is seen as a voluntary engagement. What we need to do is begin addressing what we actually believe the church to be.
Writing in the 1930’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some challenging words to say about this.
“Only when an individualistic outlook began to transform this obvious necessity into a psychological one did it ask about the meaning of the assembly [of worship] in terms of its usefulness and necessity for the individual. This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the church-community. It is therefore also completely useless to attempt to respond to it by listing a whole host of internal or external advantages, or moral obligations, which might lead the individual into the church. . . Indeed, we submit that the very question is inappropriate to the subject matter. To justify this position we can only point to the concept of the church-community itself. Thus, a justification for the purpose of the assembly is not lacking altogether; it is not simply an entrenched traditional habit, as one might assume. However, the justification simply lies on a completely different plain . . . Since I belong to the church-community, I come to the assembly; this is the simple rationale of those who are assembled. This act is not based on utilitarian considerations, or a sense of duty, but is ‘organic’ and obvious behaviour.
Bonhoeffer does well to get in pointing to the individualism that plagues the church today. To argue why one is to go to church instead of another activity is to reinforce that the church exists to solely to meet the whims and likes of the individual. This does nothing to address the problem of individualism, nor does it aid in informing the person about the true nature of the church. Bonhoeffer is clear; one comes to church because one belongs to the church. There is a plain and simple truth that we assert: one’s lives out his/her faith amid the community of believers. Therefore, active, ongoing, and regular involvement in the worshipping community is simply a call we cannot ignore. There is, in actuality, no way to get around this.
This post is the first in (probably) many wherein I will try to tease out what it means for us to move away from an individualistic understanding of the church-community. However, for now, let me say this: I believe that we have to start combating the lie that says it is ok to miss church. I think we should start telling people that ‘liking’ the church is no basis for one’s involvement in church-community. I think we need to start addressing the harm done to the church-community, and to people’s own spiritual livelihood, when other commitments regularly trump involvement in the community of faith.
These may be fighting words today, as they speak directly against the priority of the self in one’s faith-life. Yet I believe this is necessary if we wish to go forward as the church which God ordains, equips, and empowers.
Bonhoeffer quote taken from: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church; from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 1”; Minneapolis, First Fortress Press, 2009. Pg. 227.