2019.07.23 – Part 1: The Great Lament

For a few weeks this summer I will give you some content that I have written in the past, and has never appeared on this site. What follows is some of the introductory material from my doctoral thesis. Oh stop groaning! I think you will find it insightful, and maybe it will shed some light on why I approach ministry the way I do.

Note: Things in bold will be new commentary or updates to dated material, or simply be citations from the resources I quoted or concepts that I used.

Building near Sparta that once housed a church,
but has been sitting empty for years.

The Great Lament

I entered fulltime ministry in the summer of 2005. To that point, the struggles of the western church were only theoretical discussions in seminary classrooms and textbooks. When I began to serve, the theoretical became practical as I experienced what I will call “the great lament.”

The cry was loud, clear, and painful to listen to; “Where are the children? What happened to Sunday school and the youth groups we remember? Pastor, we need more young families!” Whether it is in the farm country in central Illinois, economically depressed southwestern Pennsylvania, or an affluent suburb of New York City, the song remains the same.

What I also discovered is that I am far from alone in hearing the great lament. To a person, friends and colleagues serving churches across the nation share that they hear the anguish and fear from the churches they serve. There is a resounding chorus being lifted up across the North American landscape, and it appears that the crisis does not discriminate. This struggle crosses the theological traditions: Catholic or Protestant, mainline or independent, fundamentalist or progressive. The crisis has no boundaries and appears to be to be the great equalizer.

It also appears that the predicament is not just an experience that is heard. The physical evidence is visible wherever I go as the landscape is peppered with churches that are unable to grow the Body of Christ, many shrinking in numbers through attrition as older parishioners retire and move away, enter care facilities, or pass away.

As congregations struggle for survival, they desperately try to keep the lights and heat on, care for their property, and pay their pastors. More than a few churches have closed their doors. (This past Easter season a church near us shut its doors, and others are getting close.) It is not uncommon to find an old building that once housed a church of Jesus Christ converted into a wedding dress shop, an antique dealer, or (even more tragically) just sitting empty and rotting away. (Picture above)

Even the exceptions, those churches that appear to be stable or even growing, seem to only do so for a season or two before some form of the lament settles in. A church not far from the one where I serve was a new church plant nearly twenty years ago. It grew from a few dozen families meeting in a local school cafeteria to a congregation large enough to purchase a significant plot of land and build a facility Their pastor shared with me that the leveling off of their growth in membership appears to be the result of the newness and novelty fading, and some people at the church assume that something must be wrong because their growth was not what it once was. They have also lost members to a fast growing “Sunday only” church worshipping at a large hotel twenty-five miles away. (That church has recently built a broadcast center to send the sermon to their satellites.)

During the five years I served in western Pennsylvania, four churches in the presbytery closed their doors (a loss of 5% of the presbytery). Unfortunately, there were easily a dozen others that should have closed as they were no longer engaging in ministry within their communities and were simply functioning as worship chapels. [The seven presbyteries of New Jersey, where I currently serve, are in discussions about restructuring to create fewer presbyteries]

In 2014, the Archdiocese of New York began merging its 112 parishes into fifty-five “new” parishes (a net loss of 15.5 % of their parishes) as a result of apparent demographic shifts and declining numbers. Since then, I periodically catch a story on the morning news out of New York where some grieving parishioners lament the closing of the church where they have been raised, married, raised their children, and/or have attended most of their lives. [“Heartache for New York’s Catholics as Church Closings Are Announced,” by Sharron Oterrman, The New York Times, New York Edition (November 2, 2014)]

In the severe winter of 2014/15, a number of Presbyterian churches in the Boston area applied for “disaster relief” from their national denomination because they could not keep up with larger than normal expenses due to snow removal, building maintenance, and utilities that severely overtaxed already lean budgets. They claimed that without this assistance from the already struggling denomination they would be forced to close their doors. [“Churches, Synagogues, Mosques Bear Tough New England Winter” The New York Times, (February 8, 2015)]

So what is happening? Why are so many churches struggling? Why are churches shrinking and closing? Why are major denominations taking steps to consolidate? Why are many church budgets only a difficult winter away from collapsing?

The causes are many, but I will limit my focus on two major factors that have profoundly influenced this disaster of “Biblical proportions.” The first being the dramatic shift in the cultural context in which the church of the western world has been operating in since the mid-1960s. The second, the church for decades has been in denial of the crisis and/or unable or unwilling to respond to it.

As a result, the western church has struggled to effectively offer a living faith in a Living Christ to many of those belonging to the generations born since the mid-1960s.

More on SearchDate 2019.07.26 …..

Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Psalm 33:18-19

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s