Library Learnings: Church: More Than Meets the Eye, Part 7

“Think about where we go from here”

Arising out of The Great Courses DVD set, The World’s Greatest Churches—which is available in SSUC’s Library—this seventh instalment in what is a multi-part essay about “Church,” is based entirely on a book, also to be found on our Library shelves, We Shall Be Changed, which encourages us to “think about where we go from here”.  


“What if you can’t get them in the door?”

“[O]rganized religion in the United States is in trouble. […] [T]he number of Americans who identify as religious, which has been shrinking for decades, will continue to decline as the number of those with no religion will continue to grow.” Religion News Service ace Bob Smietana, in a February 7 posting, is unequivocal: “For Christianity, the nation’s largest religious tradition, there’s no mathematic model that predicts a reversal of fortunes.”

“‘This is the largest and fastest transformation of religion in American history,’” he quotes Collin Hansen as avowing. The vice-president for content and editorial director for the Gospel Coalition—he, surely, would wish to be upbeat—goes on to say, “‘The demographics don’t suggest any positive turn around the corner. […] Many of our neighbours view Christianity as yesterday’s news, but also as the source of today’s problems.’” And such a loss of faith in organized religion, he told Smietana, “affects congregations across the Christian spectrum.”

In reckoning that church leaders need to “adapt to a ‘post-Christendom culture,’” the reporter turned to the influential author Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City: in times past, if “deeper spiritual answers” were wanted and needed, “people came to church. But today’s churches can no longer rely on that cultural support. ‘What if you can’t get them in the door?,’ Keller asks. ‘How do you win people to Christ in a post-Christian era? And the church does not have any idea how to do that.’”


Nowadays, non-fiction books, and certainly religion-themed texts (if not every chapter, too), tend to lead off with a topical quotation, often the thought of an authoritative somebody. Which is why the citation on page vii of the new-in-2020 book, We Shall be Changed: Questions for a Post-pandemic Church, is refreshing—it’s a lyric from a U2 song, “11 O’clock Tick Tock”: “We thought we had the answers; it was the questions we had wrong.”

“A gathering of brief essays from thought leaders around the church on pressing topics that the church needs to be considering now,” as its publisher explains, this “book is designed to spur conversation…about how to embrace the gifts this time [of COVID-19] has given, while anticipating and addressing the very challenges the church will confront in its wake.” The pandemic, Church Publishing Inc. reckons, “is an inflection point for the church everywhere….” (In the books it publishes, CPI supports the Episcopal Church and its components, and seeks to “reach into the broader ecumenical market and across the worldwide Anglican Communion.”)

“[T]hey are important questions worth asking,” Corey Simon declares in a Life is Story review. What’s more, “[t]here is some sage wisdom contained within this collection…[so] this is a good starting place for beginning to think about where we go from here….”


“It’s no wonder that people…have left churches”

“People,” Michael Coren understands, are “abandoning organized Christianity, and who can blame them?” He goes on: “[I]t’s no wonder that people identify as atheists, or have left churches.” Why? Because “too many churches are promoting religion, rather than Jesus,” he argues. “All I would ask is that they give not churches, but Jesus another chance.” In an opinion piece in the October 30, 2022, Toronto Star, the Anglican priest, author, and broadcaster, points out that Jesus “called for a world turned upside down”.

The very next day, The Conversation—this is a network of not-for-profit media outlets that offers analysis and opinion by academics and researchers on issues that matter—posted Morgan Shipley’s message: “[P]eople increasingly identify as humanists, atheists, agnostics, or simply spiritual.” But the fact that they “turn away from organized religion does not necessarily come at the expense of faith, ritual, or practice.”

Many continue “their pursuit of meaning, healing, purpose, and belonging,” just not within the church. They seek “communal structures that provide avenues for spiritual rejuvenation,” they long for “the benefits and shared opportunities” that they “associate with the experience of ‘going to church’.” Where do they turn? Shipley, who holds an endowed chair of spirituality in religious studies at Michigan State University, points to “the rise of nonreligious churches,” then mentions how, too, “digital opportunities have emerged as a vital site for cultivating spirituality.”


Herewith is a sampling of the insights to be found in editor Mark Edington’s muster of writings—stationed in Paris, the Rt. Rev. Edington is the bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe:

❥  “A friend has embroidered the Beatitudes…adding [one more]: ‘Blessed are the flexible, for they will not get bent out of shape’.” [From “Church on Fire,” by Molly Baskette, senior minister, First United Church of Christ, Berkeley.]

❥  “[T]he church’s sense of identity has relied excessively on resource-demanding buildings.” [From “Paschal Leadership for a Paschal Church,” by Jeffrey Lee, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Chicago.]

❥  The particular challenge Lee raises has another contributor wonder, “Are we courageous enough to leave our buildings, once we return to them?” [From “Everything has Changed?”, by C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Texas.]

❥  It has another contributor affirm that what the church requires is leadership “that will draw us out of the incarceration of our assumptions, and into new imagining and possibility.” [From “Authority is Exerted; Leadership is Exercised,” by Robert Wright, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.]

❥  That “leadership” should recognize that, “During this time of shaking and pruning, some of our theology may die, and it needs to die.” [Shane Claiborne, co-founder of Red Letter Christians, “a movement to take Jesus seriously by committing to doing…what Jesus said.”]


“Abandoning God”—it’s happening near and far

It’s all over. Speaking of leave-taking from church and religion, God and faith, this assertion is meant to be understood in a geographic sense: it’s happening—folks are decamping—thither and yon. But, it could be understood, and could come to be true, in another way, as well: think about it.

A Gallup poll last May affirmed that, in America, belief in God has dipped to a new low. A month later, The Sydney Sunday Herald, in reporting Australia’s latest census, headlined, “Abandoning God: Christianity plummets as ‘non-religious’ surges in census”. Also in June, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, headlined, “Record numbers leaving churches”.

➽ “Fewer Americans today than five years ago believe in God,” Gallup reported. True, 81% still do, but that’s down six percentage points from five years ago, and well below the figures reported during the half-century before that, when “a consistent 98% said that they believed in God”. But, listen: “Gallup has documented steeper drops in church attendance, church membership, and confidence in organized religion, suggesting that the practice of religious faith may be changing more than basic faith in God.”

➽ Down Under, the Sydney newspaper reported, “Australia has become strikingly more godless over the past decade, with the latest census data showing that the proportion of self-identified Christians dropping below 50% for the first time [the figure is 44%, down from 61% a decade ago], and a soaring number of people describing themselves as ‘non-religious’.” That figure is 39%, almost double the 22% who ticked the “no religion” box 10 years ago; back in the mid-1960s, fewer than 1% identified as having no religion. “Based on current trends, non-believers could overtake Christians…by the time the next census is conducted in 2026.”

➽ As for Germany, DW reported that, “for the first time, less than half of the country belonged to a church”. In 2021, “at least 359,000 Catholics left the church…a leap from the 221,390 who left in 2020”; and “[o]nly 4.3% of Catholics said they go to church most Sundays”. What’s more, “large numbers” of Protestants “followed suit”. “The change in German society is clear,” DW acknowledged. “Fifteen years ago, 61% of Germans belonged to either a Catholic or Protestant church. Today, about 26% of Germans are officially registered as Catholics, and 23.7% as Protestants.”


❥  One other contributor warrants that “faith communities…have a much bigger toolbox than they realized for carrying out the ‘it’ that is church.” [From “Supply Chains,” by Sarah Birmingham Drummond, founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School.]

❥  “There will now be an expectation that churches have digital church as part of regular ministry. …we’ll need to consider how we integrate those who might ‘only’ join us online into the life and work of our congregation.” And let’s be aware that “when the church had to go digital because of the pandemic, young people tuned in.”  [From ‘Looking Ahead,’ by Lorenzo Lebrija, founding director of TryTank Experimental Lab, a research initiative to “equip future leaders to reinvigorate the church”.]

❥  “The pandemic has, in a deep way, ‘invited’ us to remember that worship is everything we do in our lives. […] ‘Returning to normal’ is not a Christian goal.” [From “Come, Let Us Worship,” by Lizette Larson-Miller, professor of liturgy, Huron University College, University of Western Ontario.]

❥  Another writer also says there’s no going back: “[T]o return to the way things were before this crisis…is a wish to live in the past.” [From “Into the Virtual,” by Paul-Gordon Chandler, rector of the Anglican Church in Qatar.]


“The ground is eroding for denominational identities”

As has been reported, individual Christian congregations can wane. Well, so can denominations. In America—there, at least—individual congregations are breaking away from their denominations. In large numbers. Under this headline, “Entering a ‘post-denominational’ era: inside the rise of the unaffiliated church,” journalist Tracy Simmons, in a November 15, 2022, Religion Unplugged article, found in a 2015 Faith Communities Today survey that, in the previous 10 years, over 8,000 churches became nondenominational.

According to the 2020 U.S. census, she adds, “Between 2010 and 2020, non-denominational churches expanded by two million attendees, and 9,000 congregations.” These congregations now “constitute the third-largest religious group in the country, after Catholics and the Southern Baptist Convention.” They’re congregations—most are evangelical—that choose not to affiliate with an official denomination. Why the growth? Simmons offers a clue: in their church-shopping, one family found denominational churches “’are almost archaic, with hymnals, no electronics’”; as well, “many mainline religions seem to be steeped in values that don’t necessarily reflect the community.”

For understanding, she turned to Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research: “’More churches are operating…with less regard for…denominational pronouncements, rules, literature and materials, etc.’ He calls this the post-denominational era, and says the ground is eroding for denominational identities.” Unaffiliated congregations have “‘become more popular over time due to the increasing individualism of American society.’ […] He said non-denominationalism is individualism at the congregational level.”


An appointed mission partner of America’s Episcopal Church, Chandler, in his four-page-long chapter, with which the book begins, has more to say about “whether the church will be able to adapt,” and do so “with a spiritual vision to thrive in this unexplored terrain.” Consider these additional observations:

❥  “[T]he church’s new world will require a creative embrace of technology and new media—not as substitutes, but as inspired and strategic vehicles of ministry and mission. […] [I]t is already clear that the church’s experiences in the ‘virtual world’ have provided…an opportunity to engage with a far greater number of people…. Indeed, for some churches it has already shown itself to be transformational.”

❥  “We are being forced to broaden our understanding of the church in terms of its ‘boundaries’—geographically, yes, but also as to how we ‘do and be’ the church. […] In this new world, the church comes to the people, and it must be willing to change much of the ‘culture’ associated with church. […] [C]hange is essential for the continuation of any entity, the church notwithstanding.”

In making that last assertion, Chandler echoed what the book’s editor had declared pages earlier in the preface: “We do not yet have answers to the question of how the church shall be changed by this pandemic year,” Mark Edington admits. But, “[o]pportunities have been set before us to shake loose the systems and structures that cannot get us to where God invites us now to go….” He tells of “the long months of closure and isolation, of shuttered churches and virtual communities”—these the result of the COVID-19 mire—“set before us the certainty of change. We shall be changed.”

Ken Fredrick

To be continued. The final instalment in this essay about “Church” will be posted to the SSUC Library’s website [] on May 26th. It will be an easy-to-take photo essay. Come again!


An interlude

“Hope for a life-giving future”

Religion News Service placed this image, by Andrew Seaman of Unsplash Photo Community, over its story by L. Gregory Jones.

“[I]t’s easy to feel like we’re living in a world of broken dreams.”

It’s hard to argue with L. Gregory Jones’ take on life nowadays. President of Belmont University, he, the longtime dean of the Duke University Divinity School, spoke his truth in a piece for Religion News Service posted last October 22, “In dark times, our institutions can offer hope, help us flourish”. “In a world full of challenges, institutions that cultivate hope”—here, he included  churches—”are essential,” he avowed. “They help us to see past the darkness of the present. […] They offer a glimpse of what is possible.” They embody “hope for a life-giving future”.

Remembering his own father’s funeral, he wrote of “the institution of church and community surrounding us in the darkest of times.” He concluded his laudation by observing how we, hurting “under battered dreams and shattered hopes,” need to “pick up the pieces, and make something beautiful from the rubble. …[P]articipating in vibrant institutions can help us to do that—together.”


A sidebar

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Anticipate, if you will, “the rise of religious and spiritual communities in the metaverse as inevitable.” That’s Jeremy Nickel’s prophecy, according to Chris Karnadi in his August, 2022, report for Religion & Politics. An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, Nickel is founder of EvolVR, a religious community that meets in virtual reality. Yes, “Tech companies are…increasingly recognizing that religious communities…will play a key role in the digital future,” Karnadi reckons in his opening sentence of his article, “The Future of Religion in the Metaverse”.

The metaverse has been described in “the broadest terms” as being “a graphically rich virtual space, with some degree of verisimilitude, where people can work, play, shop, socialize.” When, in 2021, Facebook was renamed and rebranded as Meta, Mark Zuckerberg observed, “You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet where, instead of just viewing content, you are in it.” One of its aims is to “become the virtual home for religious community,” Meta told The New York Times.

“Religious communities have long been key players in gathering people throughout history,” Karnadi explains. “So it’s not a surprise that religious communities have been involved in developing uses for the metaverse.” He quotes the cleric of another virtual reality church, DJ Soto, founder of VR Church, as declaring, “'[W]hat we are doing…is currently reforming the landscape of Christianity.’” So it is that his church “allows creative interpretations of Christian texts and rituals. Baptism can happen in a glacial lake in a completely fabricated digital world.”

Which is no big deal. “Click and gape at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling up close. Click again and join thousands of pilgrims praying and circling around the cube-shaped Kaaba at Islam’s most sacred site. Or strap on a headset and enter the holy city of Jerusalem. […] All without leaving home.” All this is possible, and more, according to Luis Andres Henao in his piece, “From Mecca to the Vatican, exploring sacred sites with VR,” which appeared in The Washington Post just days before Karnadi’s report got posted.

“Worshippers…are increasingly joining virtual reality religious activities and pilgrimages to some of Earth’s most sacred sites,” Henao continues. Such experiences can be had “in the metaverse, an immersive virtual world….” As he notes, many people, “some traditionally religious, some religiously unaffiliated, are increasingly communing spiritually through virtual reality.” He concludes his eye-opening story by referencing William Green, professor of religious studies at University of Miami: “[F]aith needs to involve concrete actions, from praying or singing to meditating or fasting. […] [Y]ou can’t do that in two dimensions—but you can do it in the metaverse’.”