The Circulating of the Saints

Two interesting pieces hit my twitter feed today. Depending on one’s perspective, I suppose the news they contained could be considered either encouraging or distressing; or perhaps both.

U.S. based Sojourners magazine tweeted a May 2015 article by Ryan Stewart entitled “Is it good or bad when churches shrink?” The article offers several apparently conflicting answers to this question. Ed Stetzer, contributing editor of Christianity Today claims, “Christianity is not dying; nominal Christianity is.” In his view, our current experience of declining numbers may actually be indicative of a much needed “bloodletting!” Ouch!  

Stewart acknowledges the validity of this perspective but offers a caution. “But it’s also a problem if people are leaving churches because churches offer nothing distinctive or particular.”  If, as Stanley Hauerwas said back in 1985, “church is simply the dull exponent of conventional secular political ideas with a vaguely religious tint, why go at all?” Why, indeed! Ouch, again!

The second article came via Convivium, a journal published by Cardus, a Canadian faith-based organization committed to “the renewal of North American social architecture.” The article reflected on the third in a series of a Cardus/Angus-Reid Institute studies concerning the state of faith in Canada at its 150th birthday. Cardus executive VP Ray Pennings reflects, “Our poll shows 80 per cent of Canadians, at some point in the last month, have prayed or read a sacred scripture. More than two-thirds say they think at least once a month about a greater power or a God.” Sounds good, eh? But then he continues. “It doesn't have institutional expression, though.” Not so good. Big ouch!

Like it or not, more people than we would like are leaving our churches. Some of those folks may, in fact, be giving honest expression to their own rather nominal faith commitment. Others, however, are abandoning our churches because they are spiritually hungry and their experience of church has left them feeling spiritually malnourished! While both situations are sad, the latter should be the most distressing to us.

Like that 80% who pray, read sacred scripture and “think about a greater power or a God,” but with “no institutional expression” these folks are telling us some hard truths that we would do well to consider. For the most part, they are not hostile to the church. They don’t, however, believe that the church is seriously engaged in the business we claim to be in. They are quite open and receptive to engaging in the “faith and discipleship business”; but they see us as being mostly engaged in the “church business.” And for the most part, they want nothing to do with it.

Please hear me. I continue to believe that there is an important role for institutional expressions of the church. I also recognize and applaud the courageous efforts that many of us are making to renew our institutional life. I know this work is not easy but your witness gives me and many others great hope for the future.

I also believe, however, that the present stakes are high and that we need to re-double our efforts toward re-directing the excessive amounts of time, energy and resources that we spend seeking to please, placate and conform to nominal expressions of the faith. It’s a losing strategy that will only frustrate and further alienate the genuine seekers; both those within our midst and those who have yet to find us. For better or worse, saints do, indeed, circulate. Let’s do what we can to make sure they’re circulating in the right direction and for the right reasons!