For at least 6 six years, I have heard people say that the Church is dying. “The Church is going to hell in a handbasket,” one Episcopal priest in California said at a meeting one night. “The numbers show that the mainline churches are declining in numbers,” other people like to say. Recently, a priest asked a group of us Episcopal seminarians how we were dealing with the fact that the church was declining; where were we all going to go when we got out of seminary?
I get tired of hearing this prognostication of death. As the character in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” says, “I’m not dead yet!” I mean, think about it. If the Church is dying, then that would mean, according to our standard Christian doctrine about the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit is dying or has decided to abandon us. I say this because the Church is the manifestation of the Spirit on Earth, according to Christian theology. The Church began when Christ sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and we believe that the Church is continually inspired by the Spirit.
Has the Holy Spirit died? It would be blasphemy to many Christians to claim this. God cannot die. Is it possible, then, that the Holy Spirit has abandoned us? If so, then that would negate the promise of Jesus in the Gospel of John, in which he says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). So I consider it highly doubtful that the Spirit has abandoned us, or is letting us (the Church, I mean) die. I could see the Spirit allowing us to languish in our mistakes for a time, but that’s not the same thing as letting the Church die.
That’s my main theological objection to church leaders lamenting the decline or death of the Church. My other problem with it is similar to the problem of the not-yet-dead guy in “Monty Python.” Can’t people see that we, the Church(es), are not dead yet? I am surrounded by passionate, intelligent, motivated, creative, highly energetic future church leaders of all Christian denominations here at Yale Divinity School, and when people tell me that the Church is dying, I want to invite them to one of our worship services or commuter lounge discussions or cafeteria arguments. We’re bursting with energy. Actually, I’d say many of us are bursting with the Holy Spirit. And so are many of the people we encounter on the streets, in churches, at work, in the hospital, etc.
That’s not what a dying church looks like. Sure, some denominations are declining in numbers. Sure, some parishes are declining significantly in numbers. But I know many churches filled with children, teens, and adults (my two internship sites for starters). Those churches are thriving.
What may be true is that some churches are declining. To me, those occurrences of decline and growth are simply part of the natural cycles of creation and death in our world. It happens in gardens, in which dead growth is pruned away or turned under the soil to nourish the next generation of plants. It happens in industry, in which some products or services are crucial for a while, but then slip into obsolescence as other products and services come to the fore. It happens in our lives: we age, and we die, and our families get smaller, but new life always comes behind us.
So I don’t find it alarming that church populations sometimes decline, or even that some church denominations decline. It can be difficult to watch one’s own church slip away or to consider severe cutbacks in a denomination’s ability to respond to the needs of its community. I have seen that, and it is hard to experience, as all loss is hard to experience. But I trust that the Spirit is always planting anew and will be with us forever. And I also trust in the God who showed us through the Cross and Resurrection that what looks like tragic loss is often the pathway to a new type of spiritual life–a life we would not otherwise be able to have.