The Senescence of the Organized Church
I had heard for years that Christianity in Europe had declined sharply. In many countries church attendance is in the single digits on a non-holiday Sunday. So what happens when there are hundreds of church buildings in a metropolitan area that no longer have any worshipers?
Some survive as historical sites: no one is going to raze Salisbury Cathedral or Chartres Cathedral to the ground.
But even beautiful historical churches can’t survive without support. A 2015 Wall Street Journal article noted that in every European country churches were being locked up by the scores, sometimes the hundreds—even some that are beautiful and historical. Old buildings are high maintenance, and if no one takes care of them they become deteriorating eyesores.
The tiny country of the Netherlands has a big problem:
The country’s Roman Catholic leaders estimate that two-thirds of their 1,600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, and 700 of Holland’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years.
So what happens to these buildings? Beyond those preserved for their historical importance, city leaders might invest in a few as libraries or concert halls or community theaters. But how would you feel if the grand old church you were baptized in was sold to become a disco or boutique or cannabis outlet or, as in one old church in Arhem in the Netherlands, an indoor skate park?
Even these uses are limited: a 500-year-old church building is too expensive to maintain for a boutique indefinitely. Imagine the cost of replacing the roof!
Old churches are going on the market here too for uses besides worship. In Zanesville, Ohio, I regularly passed a church building that is now used as a (euphemistically labeled) “gentlemen’s club”!
Unused buildings are only the symptom of the larger problem: that congregations are dying because people are losing interest in organized religion.
For years, we thought this would never happen in the well-churched United States. And it certainly would never happen to Seventh-day Adventists, we with the strong, clear theological and lifestyle identity, and urgent end-time message.
We were wrong.
About fifteen years ago the Pew Research Center began noting a spike in what they called the “nones” in the American population—people who said they had spiritual interest, but no affiliation with a congregation, denomination, or religion. The “nones” have now overtaken the joiners and the true believers in the younger demographic—the people who are stepping up as the rest of us pass on.
I spent the last years of my ministry in a geographically huge district with six tiny churches. Each of them could tell stories of past eras when the sanctuary was packed wall to wall, folding chairs in the aisles. None has much of a presence anymore. The congregants are good, well-intentioned people, almost all gray-haired. There are too few children for children’s Sabbath Schools. I remember how disappointed we were when an advertised evangelistic series in one congregation brought precisely no one—not one visitor.
A leader in a midwestern conference told me that they may have to abandon the pastor/district model in favor of a circuit-driving pastor who covers many congregations over thousands of square miles; who shows up at tiny declining churches just for the occasional sermon, baptism, wedding, and (most frequently) funerals—who covers so much territory that he has to have a lodging budget. They expect most of these little congregations will close within a few years anyway.
Congregations across the heartland, tiny churches in villages and small cities, are on hospice care. But I was shocked when I heard one of Glendale City Church’s pastors say recently that just based on the trend lines, in 30 years there might be no Adventists left in the Los Angeles region at all!
What’s happened to churches?
Those who analyze such things say that these are factors:
- People don’t join, and aren’t loyal to, organizations of any kind like they used to be. We are also less likely to let boundaries and identities separate us from others. (Often, that’s a good thing.)
- Religion is personal now, only good if it fits into an “I’ve gotta be me” framework. We no longer feel like we need to subscribe to a set of doctrines dictated by someone else, or attend a worship service, to be saved.
- There are a lot of options for spiritual learning and fellowship, many accessible on the internet.
- To go back to where I began: the cost of keeping up buildings that are used a few hours a week is driving congregations into the ground financially.
- Churches are thought by many (even those who frequent them) as places of internal conflict about unimportant things, rather than for discovering ultimate meaning, or for leading them in constructive world-changing activities.
- The social aspect of organized religion doesn’t seem as necessary as it once was. There are less judgmental places to meet people. Socially, our culture evolves quickly, and young people appear no longer interested in gathering for an old people’s religion that seems to exist in an irrelevant past.
- Most importantly: people have ceased to trust organized religion. And top denominational leaders—in many denominations, not just ours—have not just let that happen: they’re proud of how they’ve broken faith with people by setting hard, critical boundaries, holding unapologetic political focuses, and not responding to ethical wrongs even among their own clergy.
There is no one outside the church, no one who grew up away from Sunday school and the fear of hell, who has any interest in what the church has to say anymore. And who could blame them?
What they hear in conservative Christianity, says Hunt, is that
- People who love the wrong gender are going to hell.
- People who love God the wrong way are going to hell.
- People with the wrong gender are going to hell.
- People who don’t believe the right list of doctrines are going to hell.
- Women who dare to speak in church are going to hell.
- Anyone who questions the Bible is going to hell.
- Anyone who brings up racism is a troublemaker and should be silenced.
- Anyone who is so desperate they flee their home for the chance at a better life in another country is a criminal, rapist, murderer or drug dealer.
- Anyone who follows a different faith is a potential terrorist and is doomed to hell.
- Anyone who is poor has only themselves to blame and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps instead of relying on others for help.
- Medical care is only for those who can afford it.
- The planet is ours to destroy.
Why, exactly, would you want to join a group of people who believe such things?… American evangelicalism is an old wineskin that long ago lost its ability to carry good news.
What’s the answer?
After this admittedly pessimistic assessment, I want to say that I believe there’s hope for Christianity. I can’t speak confidently about any institutional church, but certainly belief in Jesus Christ and what Jesus stands for will endure. As Zack Hunt says,
Christianity is not exhausted by the tradition and beliefs of evangelicalism, as much as many evangelicals might want to believe otherwise.… There are many corners of Christianity that are flourishing in many healthy and life-giving ways, both in America and around the world.
Nor is Christianity exhausted by the tradition and beliefs of Seventh-day Adventism. Like some of you, I have been disappointed in our denominational leaders. They’ve done pretty much what Hunt describes happening among evangelicals generally. As an organization we have, as Hunt says, “no more good news to proclaim, at least none that can be heard beyond the stained-glass windows.”
But I still love the many good and loving and well-intentioned Seventh-day Adventist people, such as those in the Glendale City Church that holds my membership. And I still have faith that God has a work for us to do.
Where do we Seventh-day Adventist Christians find hope right now?
First, we must think about our faith differently. God does not love a denomination because it is a denomination—even one that calls itself “the remnant church.” God loves people, and wants to save people—all people. In a recent article on the Adventist Today website, scholar and pastor Thandazani Mhlanga argues that the diversity with which God created us extends to diversity in faith and beliefs.
If, as I’ve argued, diversity is part of God’s original good creation, could it be that differing religious systems are also a reflection of the Creator’s essence? … Religion exists because faith exists. … Could the differences in our religious practices be a reflection of the course each people group has taken in their pursuit of the Transcendent?
I believe we have to break down the barriers that our “brand” and our opinionated doctrines have imposed on us. All of us need to trespass the boundaries that our institutionalized religion has put around us, and turn to serving our communities.
I discard those evangelical beliefs that Zack Hunt lists above as unhelpful to the message of Jesus Christ. The word “Christian” has been contaminated: the kind of religious person I want to be is “Christlike,” not “Christian.” I call it “aspirationalism”: it isn’t legalism, but it certainly depends on the notion that it isn’t what we say we believe, or what group we’re a member of, that makes us Christlike. Creeds and fundamental beliefs are relatively meaningless.
What matters is not what you say you are, but your active aspiration to have the qualities of character that we see modeled in Jesus. Following the guideline that kind and moral actions speak louder than words, we will find faithful people in all religions and cultures. They may believe all sorts of things, or care nothing about religion at all. But if they share with us the goals that Jesus set out at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4:18
“…to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,”
and at the end of his ministry, in Matthew 25:40,
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
we will find allies among the good folks of all religions, and sometimes of no religion.
Second, let’s open our hearts to the possibility of alternative ways of finding meaning and serving others in Christ’s name. Let’s not rely on Silver Spring to define the Christlike life for us anymore. Let’s refocus our identity from the structural part of the church, to the individuals who make up our community and our world.
I’m glad for new tools that make new ways of meeting possible. I am part of an online class that meets every Sabbath afternoon on Zoom called Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar. Though we can’t be with one another in person, we have come to know and appreciate one another, and have meaningful conversations.
But meeting to talk about topics isn’t enough. There are things we can’t do just by conversation. Physical gathering is valuable and precious. While we may have to readjust how and how often we meet, and find ways of defraying the costs of too-large buildings, there will still be a need, when the current plague is past, for people to meet in person and work together. Let’s not give up on congregations quite yet.
The latter rain
Third, I’ve come to believe a variant of something they told me when I was young. They said that someday there would be a “latter rain” of God’s Spirit on the earth—that God would provide the power and impetus to bring together the godly people in a way we haven’t been able to accomplish on our own.
When they told me that in my youth, they meant that everyone would join the Adventist Church. I don’t believe that part anymore. I think we’ve pretty well proven that it is not the success of our congregations, or the persuasiveness of our doctrines—and it surely isn’t the ham-fisted leadership of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists—that will “finish the work,” whatever that means. The only thing that can inaugurate God’s Kingdom in that bigger way the Bible speaks of is the power of God working through godly people, of all cultures and religions and beliefs.
And what an odd and delightful church it will be! It won’t be just Adventists or even just Christians. I believe God’s “other sheep” will include Buddhists, Hindus, animists, even good agnostics and atheists. How could God possibly leave them out?
In the meantime…
In the meantime, we plug away. We keep trying. We put on our masks, sing as much as we can, listen to the music, and absorb truth from the words of our pastor. Sometimes in person, sometimes on line. We show our love and appreciation for one another. We pitch in to help people in our community.
And we pray. We pray that God will open our eyes to all the ways God manifests Godself in the world. We pray that God will break down the barriers between us. That we will learn to be sensitive, to treat one another with kindness, and practice patience when we inevitably fail to treat one another with kindness.
And that God will tell us what to do with our churches to make a difference in the world while we can.
By God’s power (not by our cleverness, doctrinal correctness, or identity) I believe that God’s people—I don’t know about God’s religious denominations—will survive.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.