by Rick Deines
Faith communities—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and others—dot the landscape of every city in the United States, large and small. The majority of these congregations have just several handfuls of people committed to the “mission of the church.” For many of the others the purpose of the church is nebulous or rooted in the generally good values of the culture. The distinctive voice of the church is rarely heard.
The increased pluralism and secularization of society are but two factors that challenge the existence of these institutions that seem more an ode to the past than a painting of the future. But somehow, someway these groups of people continue to “keep on keepin’ on.” They remain one of the few institutions left in the heart of our major cities. They are places where exciting things are happening in some cases. In-depth renewal of faith communities may well be happening in places that seem the weakest. The Christian Scriptures, at least, recognize that out of what the world calls weakness comes strength.
Some supporters of these congregations seem to think that just because faith communities have been around, they will continue to be around. Others see these communities as created by the Spirit of God and therefore off limits to forces of destruction.
But perhaps the relative longevity of the church, at least of the Christian so-called mainline congregations, lies more in the record of the past than in the promise of the future. Perhaps it is the history of the church that we continue to celebrate and not its role in coming days. Its role as a power in that culture is now waning, and there is just enough momentum generated in times past to keep the machine ticking ahead as we open the twenty-first century.
Certainly the dream of those who named the twentieth century “The Christian Century” did not come true. Our awakening to a whole new world community in this century has made it clear that domination by any one group, however desirable, is not possible. The Christian church will forever be a minority in the world no matter how many “mega” churches we build. The sum total of those congregations’ memberships multiplied twenty times over is still an infinitesimal percentage when