What can we make of this? Well, we know that for decades now the institutional church has been in decline. Churches, including this one, have been working to find ways to connect with people, especially younger generations, who don’t see much in the institutional church that relates to their lives. A whole industry has developed around methods and strategies that will “bring people in.”
I don’t think that there is any silver bullet – that if we just do “this” or “that” we can turn things around.
Phyllis Tickle wrote a book a few years ago entitled “The Great Emergence,” in which she says that every 500 years or so the church goes through a great “rummage sale,” when the church rummages through its creeds, doctrines, and practices – tossing out what isn’t used or helpful anymore, and finding a way to start over with a new and fresh slate. It happened when the Eastern Church parted from Rome, then again with the Protestant Reformation, then with the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment – and now we are at another such time. As she puts it, we just happen to be lucky enough to be living through our own rummage sale time!
I am convinced that everyone has a heart for God, a longing for something beyond themselves that provides meaning and purpose. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” I don’t expect everyone to be convinced of this if it is not a spiritual inclination they share. However, for those who are so convinced, and as long as this longing is there, there is hope that God will find a way where there is no way. God can do amazing things through the faith of God’s people. The shape and form of the church in the future may not be very recognizable to many of us. It may not include buildings to maintain or clergy that arrive at their calling in the traditional way (or even clergy at all!) – but God will find a way to move the hearts of those who seek to love and serve him and to serve searching and suffering humanity in God’s name – and to do it together in community.