Magazine article The Christian Century

The Post-Anxiety Church

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Post-Anxiety Church

Article excerpt

WHEN I SPEAK at denominational gatherings, pastors often ask me to say something about the future of the church. The subtext of their invitations is, "If you have any ideas for survival, let us know."

The future of the church is a question that makes it way deep into my bones. I worry too. But the church has never looked less attractive than when it dresses in anxiety. Historically that's when we've made our worst mistakes. Fear makes us desperate. We throw the little money and energy that remains into trendy programs that make no substantive change. Or worse, we become fixated on finding someone to blame for our demise. These are expressions of despair, which is where anxiety lands after it slides to the bottom.

Some righteously reassure us this is the way people have always treated prophets who took courageous stands against the injustices of their day. The mainline church is dying, they say, because society cannot handle the hard truth its preachers proclaim every Sunday.

Others look longingly at evangelical congregations that appear to be growing and graft new market-driven strategies onto a centuries-old theological tradition. In some congregations the graft takes, but at considerable cost to the tradition. Eventually the historic roots wither, the tradition is lost, and all that remains is another construction driven by what the consumers want.

Still other church leaders cling to tattered 20th-century denominational bureaucracies that make it incredibly hard for the Holy Spirit to sneak in with a new idea.

Meanwhile most of the people who used to fill the pews of the mainline congregations long ago decided that the church has little relevancy to their souls, which are worn down by work, family, and a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams. They didn't leave in a huff. They didn't nail up 95 theses that called for reform. They wandered away and found that a Sunday morning spent with the New York Times or cheering for a child's soccer game came closer to a sabbath than what they found in a sanctuary.

Little good comes from getting fixated on the empty pews. The mainline Protestant church has to stop fretting about its future. The anxiety takes up the air and leaves the church too lethargic to offer anything to the world. The alternative response is for the church to do what it's always done at its best, what it did from the beginning: stop thinking about its future and sacrifice itself to its mission. …

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