One of the news services that I read, well, religiously, is Religion News Service. Through RNS I keep up with the latest news about a wide range of faith groups in the US. I’ve been reading it for decades (it used to be a stapled packet of papers sent by postal service; now it’s a daily email). RNS has helped my view of the American church be both long and broad.
So I know there’s nothing unique about the issues that plague the Church of the Brethren.
Longtime journalist Bob Smietana, national reporter for Religion News Service, said something like that when he spoke recently to the Mission and Ministry Board.
After showing statistics measuring the decline in size and influence of Christian churches in the US, he declared, “It’s not your fault.” And then he said, “But it is your problem.”
The reason it’s not our fault (or the fault of any other denomination) is that there are big changes around us that we don’t control. Demographics are working against us (families don’t have as many children, for example). The polarization of society means that people sort themselves into like-minded groups. And there’s a rapid loss of trust in institutions, ranging from cab companies to churches. Back in the heyday of the church growth movement, these trends hadn’t yet taken hold.
Now, everything has changed, including the assumptions around which we’ve built our churches. “It’s not that one thing is changing after another,” he writes in his book Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters. “It’s that everything is changing all at once, all the time.”
When people are overwhelmed by change and decline, Smietana points out, they turn on each other. One of the pastors he interviews says that Christians turn to a “scarcity mindset.” They “draw boundaries and try to keep people out rather than paying attention to what God is doing around them.”
So the situation is not our fault. But it is our problem, he says. In other words, this is what we have. This is our situation. This is our time.
Smietana says he’s an optimist. He believes there’s an important place for the organized church. His book tells story after story of churches that are choosing their future.
“These are hard times for churches and other religious institutions,” he writes. But every day a host of churches “get up and plot their resurrection.”
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.