Does the Church Have a Future?

By Jessica Tate

Does the church have a future?

Cathedral ruins on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, England Credit: Lori Raible

Cathedral ruins on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, England
Credit: Lori Raible

We ask that question a lot as the decline in religious affiliation becomes more and more apparent in our culture and our congregations:

  • Fewer than 50% of adults in the US identify as Protestants, mainline or evangelical.
  • “Nones” are on the rise, now representing 1/5 of the US adult population.
  • The PC(USA) has lost 20% of its membership in the last decade.

The decline is further along in the Church of Scotland:

  • Self-identified “Christians” have declined by 11% since 2011.
  • 37% of Scots are “nones.”
  • In the last 30 years, there has been a 40% membership decline in the Church of Scotland.

As Scottish theologian Douglas Gay humorously puts it, “secularization is coming down the track in the United States. It’s just slower because Amtrak is slower.”

This summer — knowing that Scotland has been dealing with secularizing and pluralizing trends longer than we have in the US and building on relationships formed between Steve Eason in Charlotte, NC and Robin McAlpine in Kirkcaldy, Scotland — twelve pastors from the southeast United States hopped across the pond to spend time with twelve pastors in the Church of Scotland, to reflect together and learn from one another as we all seek to be the faithful church in this changing world. Theologian Doug Gay and author Diana Butler Bass joined us to frame our time together.

The focus of our blog this month will reflect these conversations. They are stories of finding new ways to engage the communities in which we find ourselves. They are stories of rebuilding congregations from the outside in. They are stories of showing up and being church in unexpected ways. They are stories of struggle and heartache. They are stories of grit and tenacity and hope. They are stories of putting down nostalgia and looking at ourselves and our communities with clear eyes.

We went to Scotland in search of an answer to the question, “does the church have a future?” Doug Gay flipped the question on its head, asking, “Does the future have a church?”

Does the future have a church?

In the Presbyterian Church (USA) we claim the Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

We claim the Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.

We claim the Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.

We claim the Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.  (PC(USA) Book of Order, F-1.0301) 

To the extent that we, together, find ways to live this risky faith, joyful hope, radical love and transforming witness, there is no doubt the future does, indeed, have a church.

 

Source for statistics on religion in the United States: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/

Source for statistics on religion in Scotland from a keynote delivered by Douglas Gay, August 11, 2014.