For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29)
Except for one reason, I pretty much can’t stand the ads that now intersperse every other post in Facebook. The one type of ad/post that does capture my attention is the link to history items. The “hook” is always a list like, “10 significant moments when...” or “8 Things Your Teacher Never Taught You…” Once you start with the number one link, they have your curiosity until you get to the tenth link (or however many links you can stand!)
The other day, I got hooked on a link about Constantinople and the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom.)
It was the Imperial “Cathedral” church of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.
It was built in 532 by the Emperor Justinian I and for nearly a thousand years it was the largest church in Christendom. Today it is considered a museum but has limited use as a mosque.
The Orthodox Church has been arguing that Christian Worship should also be allowed, and this has become a political argument between Turkey and Greece. I will return to this in a few paragraphs...
There have also been a fair number of Reformation history posts given the 500th “anniversary” of the Reformation-- if one begins with the posting of the 95 Theses in 1517. I am sure we will soon have continuing such celebrations as each major event of the Reformation reaches its milestone anniversary (maybe the 500th Anniversary of Katie Luther’s escape from the convent in a herring barrel?)
At the same time the church has been anxiously fretting over its declining membership and revenue streams. It is no surprise that there is a sudden movement toward “evangelism” programs. You can expect to see such things in the coming year(s.) One solution proposed is to encourage larger families! With five children I think I’ve done my part.
But the statistics that seem to obsess the leadership of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) aren’t that bad when looked at in context. Let me explain:
First, it may be a surprise to you that the birth rate of the LCMS is higher than that of the Roman Catholic Church. Growth in the Catholic church is largely dependent on Hispanic immigrants (who generally are more large family oriented) but the “Anglo” population is no different than the general population. The LCMS birth rate is nearly equivalent to the Mormon church. The not so surprising surprise is that it is from “conservative” religious families, of all religious groups, that you see larger families.
Having been involved in Scouting, I looked at their “growth” rate. The year I received my Eagle Scout award, 1972, there were 6.5 million youth in scouting. Today there are 2.5 million youth. The reality is that there are fewer 13-year-olds, both in Scouting and in Confirmation classes. The United States is aging. For many churches, their ministries will become much more oriented to seniors than to youth and there is nothing wrong in this.
Second, although the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is larger than the LCMS (3.5 to 2.3 million,) the average attendance on a Sunday is nearly the same. I was looking at an ELCA church in Wisconsin the other day for an address and saw their raw statistics: Baptized membership: 690; Average attendance 56. I generally consider that we have 2/3 of our membership in attendance with Evening Service often having more guests than members. Being a small church makes a difference in these statistics— but to close this point, it’s more important to have people show up than just be names on paper.
Third, we overestimate the influence of religion in our culture. As America opposed “god-less Communism” in the Cold War there was a civil religion emphasis mixed in with politics. Add to that the post war Baby Boom and all churches seemed full, expanded, and many spun off mission plants, i.e. Immanuel. What is happening now is a kind of a retreat to the norm of the American experience. Current self-reported weekly attendance for the United States is about 45%-- although the more accurate proportion is about 1/3, given that people tend to lie about attending church! At the time of the Revolutionary War the best estimates I have seen of church adherence (not even attendance) in colonial America was 17%. Ben Franklin, Washington and Jefferson were Deists, although they would have considered themselves Christian. Deists didn’t believe in the “miracles” in the Bible, including the Resurrection. The Age of Enlightenment rejected mystery and elevated rationalism. There is no evidence of Lincoln ever being baptized and he never was a member of a church (although he quoted the Bible to support his rhetoric.) The forces of humanism and materialism have been at work on the church for 200 plus years in the American experience and the church has survived it all. We will continue to survive it.
I won’t complain about the idea of “stressing” programs of evangelism. This is after all, the Evangelical Lutheran church. I just don’t want us to “stress” about it. I don’t think being anxious about the “state of the church” is healthy or faithful. We have every right to be hopeful about our future even as we are realistic and pragmatic about our ministry situation.
Let me return to Hagia Sophia. The government of Turkey now allows a prayer room for Christian employees. It is increasingly allowing Muslim prayers to be read on special days and the daily call to prayer is announced from the minarets added after its conversion to a mosque in 1453. The Orthodox Church is requesting that, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, both Christian and Muslim worship be allowed. This is also tangled up in the political relationship of Greece and Turkey. We will see what happens.
What I know is this: that the building itself, arguably the most beautiful Basilica in the history of the Church, doesn’t really matter. It served its purpose and may yet again, but it was never more important than the people gathered inside it to worship. I am sure that at the height of its glory no one could imagine it ever changing or its purpose removed. But it did change. Yet, the worship of Christ never stopped even as its place or grandeur did. Christ is unchanging as is the faith of His Church-- everything else will change. When Jesus pointed to Herod’s Temple and prophesied its destruction he was not believed and accused of blasphemy. It was indeed destroyed. Christ was not!
We have a new year upon us. Our church and our ministry will change. We will adapt to a new culture without conforming to it. We will live in the world but not be of the world. The journey of the Cross can be and often is difficult. But we will do it together. As Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”