My mom has always asked a lot of questions. My sisters and I often joke with each other that catching up with mom often feels like being interviewed. I also believe that her habit of asking questions is what has made her successful in both life and business. Peter Drucker, the famous Harvard Business School professor, taught leaders how to ask good questions such as: What is the work of a leader? What is the mission of your organization? What is your plan? Asking the right question can often open up one’s thinking. It can unlock worlds of possibility.
Sometimes asking a good question requires one to dig deep for a meaningful answer. At a recent visit, my mom asked me a question that caught me off guard. Seemingly out of nowhere, she asked, “Is the church dying?” After summarizing recent data from the Pew Survey about the decline of religion in North America and the rise of the “nones,” I gave my best, honest answer: “I don’t know. It doesn’t look good.” She listened intently and then asked, “When did you get those new glasses?” As I said, my mother likes to ask questions.
IS THE CHURCH DYING?
People across many faith traditions are asking my mom’s first question, “Is the church dying?” Of course, theologically speaking, we know better. The church, its witness and its destiny do not rest in the hands of U.S. Christians. The church and its mission belong to God. We will not kill the church because of our declining membership, our disagreements about sexuality or the Middle East or the waning influence of the church in U.S. society. Missionally, we also know better. Theologians and contemporary missiologists have been telling us for decades about the growth of churches in the Global South and in regions such as Asia, Latin America and on the African continent.
The church is not dying. The church is changing. The church is not dying, but it is declining in numbers in North America. The shifts facing U.S. Christian traditions at both national and local levels are dramatic and perhaps irreversible. Recent studies from the Pew Research Center indicate that the religiously unaffiliated, or the nones, have increased from 16 percent to 23 percent since 2007. The millennial generation, those born from 1981-1996, who have entered the work force in the past several years, are influencing this shift. Thirty-five percent of millennials do not affiliate with any particular religious tradition; and this number is growing. These trends suggest that Jesus’ words are still relevant, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38). The future of U.S. religion will almost certainly be tied to this justice-minded, service-oriented generation of young adults.
Most people that I talk to when I visit churches across the country understand that we will not return to the “glory years” of the mid-20th century. Moreover, religious leaders from every religion and denomination do not know what to expect from the future. Some are hopeful; some are despairing. If prophets have arisen who are speaking unequivocally about what God is up to in the 21st century in the U.S., we have yet to hear their voices clearly.
WHO IS THE CHURCH IN CRISIS?
When we look at the current social and political landscape in the U.S. and abroad, one could argue that we are in middle of at least a few overlapping crises. This past year, we saw more evidence of the ways that our world is broken. Socially, racial injustices and racially motivated violence continues in the aftermath of Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island and Charleston. Wars in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Balkans have led to mass migrations of peoples fleeing for safety to countries in Europe, even as these destinations struggle to be places of welcome. Economically, uncertainty and fear have gripped world markets as economies such as China have proven to be more fragile than originally thought. Politically, our local and federal governments continue to create ideological impasses that affect the collective will to work for necessary change. Politics have become more about defeating one’s opponents than serving the public good. Denominationally, one could argue that the PC(USA) is currently undergoing a massive reorganization of its structure and allocation of resources in order to rethink the vitality of its mission. Socially, financially, politically and religiously, our world is convulsing and changing, eagerly seeking to transform for the better. Paul’s words to the Romans are fitting:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-27)
In the middle of such radical and substantial change, the proper question is not, “Is the church dying?” but, “Who is the church in crisis?” or better, “How does the church respond to crisis?”
Crisis in religion is nothing new. One might argue that crisis often causes religion to innovate and adapt in ways that keep it vital. Christianity and Pharisaic Judaism were innovations in religion that rethought their Jewish traditions through the trauma of a post-temple reality, placing an increasing emphasis on the local congregation, synagogue and on learning from the wisdom within the Scriptures.
Going further back in the Hebrew Bible, the exile, while a devastating tragedy in the history of God’s people, was also a period in which Israel’s sages, prophets and priests began to rethink and re-appropriate their traditions in ways that made sense of a post-exilic world. In fact, the exile and post-exilic period were some of the most theologically fruitful periods in the history of Israel. One could argue that we would not have a Bible if not for the impulses that began in the post-exilic period.
Recent examples in the U.S. also bear witness to how crisis among the faithful can become fertile ground from which God’s liberation emerges. Some of the most powerful and vital movements in American Christianity materialized out of the depths of human suffering among slaves, within black churches during the Civil Rights movement and among the working classes during the Great Awakenings.
Religion thrives when there is something at stake, when something sacred is threatened. The converse also seems to be true. When we get comfortable, when we have relative prosperity and comfort, religion tends to assimilate into the values of the status quo. Religion loses its vitality as practitioners seek to use their faith as a means to create the world in their own image. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this form of idolatry. Our Christian witness becomes more about protecting our own corner of the world, our own values, our own way of living. The church becomes a place for members only, where the foreigner, the outcast and the outsider are not welcome. We lose sight of what is good and what the Lord requires of humanity, “to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Perhaps it is a good thing that we are facing crisis, for in times such as these we might be poised to recapture some of our faith’s vitality. However, one of my concerns is that, in this time of deep and substantial change, there exists a familiar temptation to focus more on the church’s or our denomination’s self-preservation than on God’s mission in the world through Jesus Christ. In this time, where there are many things that are creating genuine human suffering in the world — environmental changes, racial inequities, poverty, countries and peoples torn apart by war — we fail as God’s people if we remain preoccupied primarily with our own existence or the “is-ness” of the church’s being.
WHAT IS ASKED IN THE WORD?
Questions are at the heart of one of the most well known passages in the New Testament. In Luke 10:25-37, a lawyer confronts Jesus with two important and piercing questions. The first is: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds with two questions of his own, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer gives an answer to end all answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (As an aside, beyond forms of governance, policies or mission statements, in response to whatever crises the world can conjure up, if we as Christians could simply get these two commandments or mitzvoth right, the church would be in a much better place.)
Jesus’ affirmation of the lawyer’s response gets to the heart of faithfulness, in Hebrew, hesed: “do this, and you will live.” The lawyer then asks his second, equally important question, “Who is my neighbor?” Note that the lawyer’s response to Jesus bypasses the call to faithful action and in its place reflects more deeply on issues of identity or the “is-ness” of the neighbor. Jesus redirects this question of being by telling the story of the Samaritan who demonstrates how a neighbor responds to another in need. Fittingly, Jesus concludes the parable with another question, one that has an obvious if not difficult answer. Who was the neighbor? It was a Samaritan, a historical enemy of the Jewish people, who showed mercy to the one who had been beaten and left for dead.
WHO ARE WE?
As I reflect on this past year and what I anticipate will happen in 2016 and in the years after, I pray that it will be said of us — Presbyterians, Christians and people of many faiths — that we were the neighbor who showed mercy. That the church would be marked by followers of Jesus who, when they see the sick sitting by the side of the road, tend to them. When the crowds are gathered, we are moved with compassion and we feed them. When the demon-possessed confront our comfort, we recognize their humanity and heal them, exorcising the evil that enslaves them. When the immigrant among us is homeless, we make a home for them, because we remember that we were once immigrants (Leviticus 19:34).
What we do is a reflection of who we are. Better, as Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our quest to find out who we are will only be answered by how we witness to the good news in Jesus Christ, how we live out love of God and love of neighbor. Do this and we will live. Questions of being such as “Who are we?” and “Who is my neighbor” will give way to questions of faithfulness, hesed, “How then shall we live?”
Rev. Dr. Frank Yamada is the president of McCormick Theological Seminary, where he is also a professor of Bible & Culture. This article was originally published by Presbyterian Outlook on Dec. 31, 2015.