I’m persistently stunned by my colleagues’ inability to talk openly about the death of Protestant denominations in America. Denominations are a dimly glowing wick around which the fingers of time are closing, but you would guess that they think it’s the Olympic torch from the way they refuse to talk. Note that I do not find resistance in the form of alternative visions for the future of denominations, only resistance to open communication. I feel like financial giving to the denomination is a kind of overpriced life support because half the family is not ready to admit that the patient is gone.
So in general, when I talk about the decline of the denomination, I find myself trying to soften the blow by following up my observations with the disarming phrase, “I’m just saying.”
Rev. Dr. Dan Chun announced at the 2008 General Assembly that the PC(USA) had been losing members for 42 years and would cease to exist in 40 more. He’s being conservative, assuming a steady decline of 50,000 per year. However, to be honest, we lose more each year than the year before. I’m just saying. We don’t do ourselves any favors by refusing to talk about it. I’m pretty sure that talking about death doesn’t bring it on.
We would be wise to watch the closing years of the United Church of Christ. They are half the size of my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and dropping at about the same rate. There will be ways that the UCC turns off the lights gracefully and not so gracefully, and we should take it as a case study for preparing for our own final years.
But is this the worst of all things? Denominations are a temporary expression of an eternal reality. It’s the eternal reality that counts, not the temporary expression. So long as churches can faithfully witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, what’s the harm in changing form? What’s wrong with molting? For my colleagues who are too afraid to talk about death, would you be more open if we just pretend like Christianity is shedding its skin?
In any case, there are those for whom 40 years is more than a lifetime away, and they will go to their own rest peacefully before the denomination. So they don’t feel inclined to talk about it. There are those who are nervous about their pensions, so they don’t feel inclined to talk about it. Women in ministry have found life-giving affirmation within precious few denominations, ours being one of them, so the conversation brings them sadness and anxiety. Those whose professions are system dependent on a denomination are in trouble, so they won’t talk about it. But for the army of reasons, none of them have the power to change the coming reality.
So let’s take a hearty gulp from the honesty stein. Denominations are on the way out; Jesus is not.