Today marks the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus and the beginning of ten days of wrestling with Jesus’ physical absence that led to the beginnings of what we now call the Church, and eventually the day of Pentecost. I suppose it is fitting that this week has also marked the release of the latest Pew Forum polling on religious self-identification in America, and all of the analysis and anxiety that follows amongst church professionals, particularly in our neck of the Church.
The numbers are stark, with the mainline Christian tradition, which includes the ELCA, hemorrhaging about five million members over the last five years. The poll also includes an indication of the increasing number of young people (mainly millennial, of which I am a part) who identity as “nones,” which includes atheist, agnostic, and also many who are spiritual but don’t identify with a particular religious tradition.
Already, many have begun to dissect what the Church is doing wrong, particularly in our own tradition, something my friend Clint, a fellow Pastor in Arkansas, likes to call the “Mainline Protestant Gaze,” the self-loathing that immediately follows these kinds of reports. He writes: “We look at these numbers, and immediately begin to offer explanations. We hope to discover causation. Perhaps we are lukewarm, too liberal, not having enough babies, too inwardly focused, boring, irrelevant, too relevant, apostate, old, void of the Holy Spirit.”
Yet, as a millennial, while I find these anxieties to be genuine, I think they are misplaced, as the critiques that millennials tend to offer about the church are legitimate and have much more to do with the death of Christendom, and a sort of nominal Christianity, than with any particular one thing that we are doing wrong. I count myself among the many “nones” who are no longer interested in participating in religions communities that simply teach morality, constantly are asking for money, never wrestling with the tough questions that are so present to us in this connected and instant world.
To me, what these numbers show, is that churches who take their life together to be nothing more than a nominal social club, will not enrich and deepen faith, and too often that has been the case in our neck of the woods. What we are seeing, as Ed Stetzer, an Evangelical writer noted in the USA Today: ”Christianity and the church are not dying, but they are being more clearly defined…Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed. It is fair to say we are now experiencing a collapse, but it's not of Christianity. Instead, the free fall we find is within nominalism.”
This is not to say that the road ahead isn’t challenging, and that all churches have work to do in deepening their life together and their commitment to living a public faith in their communities. But, that communities that are paying attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, to the work of God in their local communities, and to the critiques being offered, are learning how to be healthy communities of faith in this new era.
And we have that work to do too. Last Sunday, St. Paul welcomed almost thirty new members into our community, a wide mix of new partners in this work. And I can attest that your pastor and the many beautiful leaders of this place are committed to this hard work.
I am grateful to have been assigned to this synod while I’ve been an intern here at St. Paul., especially since there is much demand among seminary graduates and clergy around the country to come to New England, some of the rockiest soil for the church in the United States. The first week in June I’ll be at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis for my final interviews and faculty approval, the last step before I can seek a call and be ordained. I pray for a call nearby with high hopes for St. Paul, watching as the Holy Spirit deepens your faith and life together, just like she did after the Ascension of Jesus.