In the US these days, the words “church” and “decline” are frequently conjoined. There are many reasons for this – economic, cultural, political, etc… – yet discussion of these factors rarely leads to any significant change. This is what makes Rev. Rachelle Brown’s commentary on the matter so unique and reorienting – because she doesn’t suggest yet another “fix” for the problem, as have so many others, but rather acquiesces to the difficult idea that indeed Christ is calling the church to die in order to be born again. Fascinated by this? Scared? Worried? So were we – yet her thoughts may give you unexpected comfort. Read, comment, and share!
Francisco Herrera – Interim Blog Editor, PhD Student at LSTC
Year after year, reports arrive showing a decline in U.S. Christianity. Not long ago, a news report offered these three points, “Americans are becoming less religious,” “Confidence in organized religion is down, and Americans are less and less inclined to seek guidance from clergy” (“Church and Clergy Have Fallen Out of Favor, New Polls Show”, NPR Morning Edition, July 17, 2019).
The content of the message is clear and consistent…
Christianity in the U.S. is on a steep decline.
Before the keyboards blaze under our fingers into another book trying to explain why church attendance is down, here is my first question “Was Jesus really concerned about the future of the temple, priests, and religious leaders? Which leads to the second question…
“What if the point of Jesus’ teaching is the spiritual life?”
It may be true that Jesus was teaching us to live a Spiritual life and we have built a religion. I am not the first person in the history of Christianity to pause and reflect in this way, nor am I asking you to consider shutting down churches. Rather, I am asking you to consider what it might mean to be a Christian in an age of religious organizations.
After leaving church all together out of hurt and frustration, about 15 years ago, I decided to be a follower of Jesus again. My decision led me back to church, then seminary, and ministry. There have been many times in which being a Christian and in a church is very uncomfortable.
In this era, we have many uncomfortable questions. The beauty and wisdom of the Gospels is how Jesus answered and asked questions. There is one passage in particular, John 3:1-10, the conversation between Jesus and the powerful religious leader Nicodemus that offers us a few clues about the reason churches are failing. Too often, we breeze past this moment in scripture, believing we are Jesus standing in the alley for a nighttime meeting. The headlines are telling us something very different:
We just might be Nicodemus.
Many modern Christians exude confidence, assurance to be “right” or sharing the “truth” as either conservative or liberal. Nicodemus is a powerful religious leader, or the keeper of the faith. Pardon my interpretation, but it may even be true that in modern times, when a big world event happens, Nicodemus might be on the news as a commentator for the “religious” point of view.
In the meeting with Jesus, at night, off the main pathway, Nicodemus calls Jesus “rabbi.” Kind of like a modern Christian religious leader saying, “Now Pastor, WE know you are doing some amazing ministry, it seems like God is with you and blessing you.” However, Jesus picks up on the royal “we” and wants no part of that. Jesus gets to the point – if you want to really experience God – be born from above. Jesus was talking about birth and spirit.
Nicodemus was trying to understand the teaching of Jesus, but his only view was from the “we” as the religious leaders.
Nicodemus did not like where the conversation was going because this teaching of Jesus defied the laws of nature as Nicodemus understood it: Birth happens once, you know that, there is no do-over. Out of frustration, then, Jesus finally asks his own question: “Tell me, how can you be a teacher of the faith and do not understand these things?” Jesus then went on to explain to Nicodemus: I am trying to describe what is happening here and now, the very human and real experiences. You can’t even believe me. How can you even begin to understand the spiritual truths?
Pause for a moment and consider the chilling reality that many Christians today just might be Nicodemus. This is a tough message. But just like Nicodemus trying to understand the spiritual teaching in the middle of the night, if you are looking for a religious answer to the questions of today – you will be disappointed, because the best answers of any tradition are just a shadow of the brighter truth.
Jesus in this conversation with Nicodemus, and throughout the gospels, describes the life we long for, the spiritual life.
As one who is ordained by a Christian church, with the robes, stoles, and lived in the position of a religious leader, I experience the dilemma. I have asked myself if I can be both spiritual and part of a religious organization?
John 3 is saying a few key things to churches and religious leaders,
- I know you are upset and it is hard to understand why so many are not interested in our ways anymore.
- If we continue on this path, we will die.
- We are called to follow Jesus and live a Spiritual life.
- Face it, the wind of the Spirit blows, and you cannot control it.
When the wind of the Spirit blows, we don’t know where it comes from, or where it goes, but it is ok, that is the spiritual life. Even the early church struggled with how to gather with those who follow tradition and others outside of the tradition. Religious people had to change. Remember Peter needed a vision to lay down religious and cultural traditions (Acts 10).
In the Spirit of our questions, here is another: If we are to be pursuing the spiritual life, why do we even have churches, or any of these pieces from tradition? The fact that we gather in a church, is not a bad thing. Jesus didn’t ask anyone to leave their faith. Jesus said, don’t limit the work of the Spirit – be born again.
Our work is to get honest, look beyond what we see, and strip away the coverings of tradition that keep us from following the blowing wind of the Spirit!
Spirituality is when we make the space for people to show up and ask tough, gut wrenching questions, for which do not have prepared answers. It is our work to push beyond religion into the spirituality of living in these bodies and our very human experiences. Into these spaces, the Spirit arrives, rushing in from places unknown, giving life rather than the life-limiting answers often provided by religious organizations.
The Gospel message woven in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus teaches us that when we are vulnerable, stripped away of all covering, broken, and without life, only then can we experience resurrection and new life.
If we are going to be the spiritual people, created by God, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus then we need to focus on being Christians first. Because when we are Christians living a spiritual life, any thing that flows from it, in word, deed, song, prayer, worship, or ritual becomes a light, creating a place for people to gather, ask the hard and confusing questions, receive love, be filled with hope, and experience new life.
Being Christians first, rooted in the teachings of Jesus, is a spiritual starting place. If the church is dying as the reports over the decades and empty buildings attest, then we must pay attention to Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, clear our confusion, and begin a long overdue spiritual journey.
Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) ordained clergy and chaplain with Heart of Hospice – Acadiana, Rev. Brown’s ministry includes local church and denominational leadership. Rev. Brown holds a Master of Divinity from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO; Master of Communications from Missouri State University, and is a current PhD Candidate at Chicago Theological Seminary. As a theologian and educator, she explores intersections of ethics, human sciences, and American religion.