Magazine article USA TODAY

Reshaping the Mission of the CHURCH

Magazine article USA TODAY

Reshaping the Mission of the CHURCH

Article excerpt

"For the church to have a future, there must be a mission ... more than passing on the faith to one's biological children."

FOUR TRENDS are shaping the future of the church for North American congregations. Even though I speak as someone who is knee-deep in Lutheranism, I believe all of them apply to most Protestant communities and Roman Catholic parishes.

The passing of Christendom. In more and more places in North America, active church-going Christians will live as a minority of the population in the 21st century. This trend is nothing new, being long developed in Europe--first in its Protestant north, and then, since Vatican II, in many traditional Roman Catholic countries as well. While the change is coming quite unevenly in various parts of North America, it does so with a special sense of threat to many Christians. Numerous members feel that they remember better days for the church, with larger crowds, more influence, and fewer financial problems. We live increasingly among neighbors who feel no pressure toward religious affiliation, and many of the children of religious parents are not churched in any active way.

There are opportunities in such a transition, as have been pointed out especially in the writings of the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall. Nevertheless, wherever Christendom has thrived until recently, there tends to be deep discouragement at its passing. It takes a great shift in attitude to avoid depression and discouragement, and a genuine theological vision to see opportunity, rather than decline. In these changes, Christians are being forced to question if they are to have a religious future at all. How can churches make their appeal without the benefit of a position of privilege or advantage?

The unchurched as formerly churched. The task is greatly complicated by the fact that so many of the people who are outside the church were at one time church members. It is a great challenge to take the Christian story to those who have never heard it, but a double challenge to convince those with earlier and negative experience of the Christian community to give the church another try.

This scar tissue among former church members (many of whom continue to consider themselves Christians) is one of the reasons that simple appeals to hospitality are inadequate. Even the warmest and most-welcoming church will not easily receive a visit from those whose memories of the church are of law, judgment, or even boredom. One does not have to take all of the complaints of the formerly churched at face value, since they may or may not represent a fair evaluation of the communities which they seem to describe. Still, the impression that religion is a source of strife, judgment, exclusion, or obscure and unhelpful dogma is a challenge that few local communities have really pondered. Does anything in parish life and public witness challenge their perception of the church as a negative institution?

Residential religious pluralism. Church congregations live surrounded by neighbors who practice many forms of Christianity, as well as by those who have no formal religious affiliation at all, but a new factor in recent decades is the presence of adherents of the major world religions in many local communities--especially metropolitan centers. The Christian churches' world mission is now a local mission in the cities, and even to some extent in smaller towns, as one's neighbors and co-workers may be Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or adherents of other traditional non-Christian religions. A number of Christians have not really mastered the art of living in a neighborly and well-informed way with Jews. Nevertheless, Jews may appear like close or familiar neighbors as Christians encounter more-distant individuals, many of whom are not likely to join their churches.

Religious pluralism is nothing new, and the history of Christianity is full of strategies for dealing with this diversity--from sympathetic dialogue to harsh intolerance. …

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