NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:8.
Is it possible that the church might finally die out? Is it possible the voice of the good news will cease? Could it be that Jesus will return to find nothing he can recognize as his Body anywhere on earth? I don’t like entertaining that question, but if Jesus himself raises it, I think it behooves us to take it seriously.
According to projections from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) Office of Research and Evaluation, the whole denomination will have fewer than 67,000 members in 2050, with fewer than 16,000 in worship on an average Sunday by 2041.  That is a sobering projection. Granted, projections like these are subject to numerous variables, some of which are impossible to predict. Nonetheless, the consistent historical decline in membership and attendance since its inception in 1987 more than suggests that the ELCA will be a much smaller church three or four decades from now.
There is no shortage of opinions about why this is happening to us. Numerous synodical initiatives have been launched with hopes of reversing the downward trend, each with its own snappy moniker, powerpoint presentation and glossy notebook full of discussion questions and group exercises for participants. When I was still active in full time parish ministry, I could count on receiving at least half a dozen adds in the mail and over the internet each week from consultants promising to transform my church from a small struggling congregation into a megachurch. There is but one common denominator among all these programs. They don’t work. After more than thirty years, the one thing we have learned is that we are on a trajectory of extinction and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it.
But that is not the same issue raised by Jesus’ troubling question. Jesus is not pondering the future of the church and its institutions-at least not directly. He is pondering the future of faith. Thus, before concerning ourselves with the ELCA’s survival (or the survival of any other denomination for that matter), we should be asking ourselves whether the ELCA is worth preserving. Are we the kind of community in which the mind of Christ is formed? Are we the kind of community that produces disciples of Jesus? Are we, as St. Paul urges, employing the scriptures in such a way “that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” II Timothy 3:17.
In one sense, I can answer these questions in the affirmative. All of the congregations to which I have belonged and which I have served helped to inform, shape and strengthen my faith. I know of more circumstances than I can number in which church communities have come to the aid and support of persons in desperate need. The church in which I grew up recognized and employed the gifts of a young man with learning impairments, enabling him to become a valued member of the community rather than a “social problem.” My fieldwork church successfully incorporated the poor, the homeless and persons with disabilities into its mission and ministry to the community. The congregations I have served over the years all have engaged faithfully in witness, service and advocacy. I know that our churches have been instrumental in forming the faith and character of many individuals who have taken their discipleship into the heart of their work and their communities. There is much that I can point to within the ELCA and its congregations with pride.
But that isn’t the whole story. It sometimes seems that these examples of faith active in love are the exception rather than the rule. On the whole, I fear we have done a piss poor job of forming disciples proficient in their understanding of our faith and equipped for the work of ministry. That is largely because we have created an ecclesiastical culture based on the model of a voluntary association providing services to its members. I attend church more or less regularly and contribute more or less generously (most likely less). In return, I am entitled to have my children baptized, confirmed and married. I am assured of pastoral care and visitation when needed and burial services when my time comes. Heaven, of course, is also an added benefit. Furthermore, because the church is all about me, my needs and my wants, I am free to switch my membership whenever my nose gets put out of joint or another congregation offers me a better deal. Teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16) is not a part of the transaction. Indeed, in our American culture of rugged individualism, where “nobody has got the right to tell me how to live my life,” these things are likely to be resented.
I don’t think that attempting to challenge this consumerist mentality will reverse our pattern of membership decline. In fact, it might even accelerate it. But that shouldn’t deter us. Membership decline is not the worst thing that can happen to a church. As Paul points out, in the absence of a solid grounding in faith and practice, people tend to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” II Timothy 4:3-4. They are ripe pickings for the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson and the like whose weird mix of end times hysteria, sexism, homophobia, American/Christian nationalism and subliminal white supremacy strike a chord resonating with so many folk fearful of a future that looks dark and threatening and who are ready to grasp any straw that promises to make sense of it all. Some of this low hanging fruit has been plucked from the midst of my own congregations. Too many men and women we have baptized and confirmed are very much in thrall to these charlatans and they are not happy when we publicly call them to account and dispute their ideologies.
In the recent past, I called for an ecumenical Barman like declaration from our bishops and theologians condemning specifically these distortions of our faith and reaffirming with boldness and clarity the good news of Jesus Christ confessed in the ecumenical creeds. While there have been no shortage of ecclesiastical statements condemning one or another of our government’s recent policy decisions, there has been no widely subscribed confessional declaration naming what I can only characterize as the heretical perversions of our faith undergirding the present reign of evil. I sometimes fear that my church lacks the courage, spiritual maturity and theological depth for any such declaration. I worry that the image of Jesus is becoming unrecognizable in our midst.
I can sympathize with our denominational leaders. It is hard challenging the consumerist mentality of a congregation. People who have for generations believed that the church to which they belong is their church and that the length of their membership and the significance of their contributions entitle them to a degree of influence inevitably feel that something is being taken away from them. Members who have ingrained upon their psyches the assumption that faith and patriotism are two sides of the same coin and that the church exists to shore up a particular notion of American cultural values will have a hard time adjusting to an understanding of church as a counter-cultural community that sometimes must question, criticize and even oppose the dominant culture. I have experienced all of this first hand and have the scars to prove it. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a bishop charged with unifying the church facing the prospect of schism within a denominational body already under stress. There is a real danger that a lot of individuals and congregations will be driven away by a clarion call to repentance, faith and a radical change of ecclesiastical culture.
Yet if we fail to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (II Timothy 4:2) so that the gospel of Jesus Christ is made distinguishable from the ideologies pulling our members in every other direction, I am not convinced that our survival matters. It will mean nothing for the church to have survived if, upon his return, its Lord cannot recognize it as his Body.
Here is a poem reflecting on Jesus’ haunting question.
They say the hour’s getting late
The day of judgment will not wait.
Soon the dawn of doom will come
And darkness swallow up the sun.
So turn from earth your wandering eye
And fix your gaze upon the sky;
So when the Son of Man comes again,
He’ll find among us faith in men.
Yet if the end does not come soon,
We might yet colonize the moon,
Set our flags in the sands of Mars,
From there set sail for distant stars.
Given ten thousand years or more,
We might break down the last closed door,
And with your great machines transverse
The breadth of this whole universe.
Still, however far we roam,
No matter where we make our home,
We’ll meet again at each new shore
The Galilean troubadour
Whose troubling song will hound our race
In every coming time and place.
If God the end of time should save
For people in this distant age,
Will the Son of Man e’en then
Find among us faith in men?
 See Faith + Lead, September 5, 2019 (published by Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN). Of course, the ELCA and the rest of American protestantism is but a drop in the bucket when compared with the whole church catholic, many parts of which are growing. I do not mean to equate the ELCA with the church universal. Still, the demise of the church in any part of the world is a serious matter.