At peace in a death-denying culture

We’re living in a post-Christian culture. Or at least we’re moving swiftly in that direction. It’s something I notice all the time in my role as a chaplain at two large secular university campuses. The expected familiarity with the great claims and concepts of Christianity just isn’t there anymore, and that’s apparent even in the small, offhand comments I overhear on campus: on a couple occasions, a guide has led prospective students by my office, and said “this is the Champlain’s office.” I don’t know what he thinks happens in the Champlain’s office. Cartography, maybe?

Churches are dying. We’re familiar with the stats, right? Our denomination has sprung a slow leak, and something like 80 percent of our churches have seen membership rolls decline. Other churches would be blessed to have a slow leak. For them, the pipes have burst, and the people have gone gushing out. Our cities are littered with beautiful old churches with rows and rows of empty pews.

Ministry colleagues have told me it’s a “fearful” time to be a minister. Other colleagues have referred to dying churches as “failing,” as if numbers matter more than the gospel faithfully preached. One of my seminary professors said to a group of soon-to-be pastors “if you’re not a church planter, you’re a church undertaker.” We’re a worried, anxious flock.

I can tell, because every morning, when I check out Twitter, or make my way through the churchy blogs I read, I see another study on how to reach millennials. Another think-piece on “the way millennials are.” It seems every day there’s extensive debate on how to reach them. Extensive hand wringing on how we’ve isolated and alienated them. There’s listicles on the top 10 ways to be a missional leader. Apologetics books galore. And on and on it goes. Churches may be in decline, but the Christian publishing industry is booming.

Don’t get me wrong: some of this surely comes from a good place, an urgent desire to see the Gospel spread, and to see God’s church thrive. But it’s getting harder for me to filter that out from the anxiety that animates it.

A forgotten concept
We live anxiously in our post-Christian culture. We also live in a death-denying culture. I’ve been wondering lately if there’s a connection between the two. One of the hallmarks of a death denying culture is the intense reliance and hope placed on medical technology. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas cheekily says that we develop medical technologies that we think “will help us get out of life alive.” There are benefits to medicine, of course, but it also seems that so much hope is placed on it in an effort to control what is essentially inevitable and uncontrollable.

I’m wondering if the blogs, the tweets, the listicles, the conferences and the stacks of books are a variety of this. Not technology, per se, but technique (which is etymologically related), an undue reliance placed on our own innovation, our own strategies, our own game plans to control the death of the church in a post-Christian culture. Sometimes it works – or seems to, anyway – and churches bloom like wildflowers. But there’s danger here, too: the human heart is a factory for idols, and we make idols of those techniques, those pastors, those large suburban mega-churches who seem to have their finger on the pulse of an ever-shifting culture. We scorn tradition and ritual and praise novelty. We scramble to maintain the cultural influence and control we once had. We denigrate the subtly powerful work the Spirit is doing in the small churches, in the declining churches, in the churches led by pastors who aren’t invited to give keynote speeches at the big evangelical conferences.

Throughout history the church has grown and acquired great culture-shaping influence. At other times, it’s retreated to the desert. God has done great things in both places. I wonder if the latter example has much to teach us now.

What would it look like to be at peace in a dying church? To be at peace in a post-Christian culture? What sort of witness could that provide to a death-denying culture? I would love a 21st century post-Christian recovery of the old ars moriendi, the art of dying, and dying well. Don’t confuse that with resignation, though. We’re living in the midst of large demographic changes and shifts in religious sensibilities. Our institutions might crumble in their wake. The money might run out. But remember: when things die, they’re open to the reality of the resurrection. That may be a forgotten concept in our post-Christian culture.

May we continue to be the ones who remember.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

You just read something for free.

But it didn’t appear out of thin air. Writers, editors and designers at Christian Courier worked behind the scenes to bring hope-filled, faith-based journalism to you.

As an independent publication, we simply cannot produce award-winning, Christ-centred material without support from readers like you. And we are truly grateful for any amount you can give!

CC is a registered charity, which is good news for you! Every contribution ($10+) is tax-deductible.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *