People have been discussing the decline of the church for quite a few years now. We’ve gotten used to the dire warnings and predictions of the end. It is part of our collective story. But despite the fact that fewer people attend church regularly, or feel the need to attend at all, many congregations keep plodding forward without much change. “Those young people will come back eventually; we did! Besides, the problem really isn’t us. It’s the world that changed.”
So you want those millennials to start attending your church? Great! So let’s stop telling the tale about the death of the church and start writing the story about the future of the church.
This denial is in part because gloom and doom predictions don’t generally motivate positive changes in behavior. Fear is one of the worst motivators there is, especially when the object of one’s fear is a vaguely, or poorly, defined set of future predictions. Every missed indicator becomes another reason to discount the entirety of said theory and an excuse to return to (or stay with) one’s past form of behavior.
This tendency is also evidenced in how quickly we can forget that there is a problem when we see a small resurgence in Sunday morning worship attendance. Somehow, suddenly, our individual faith community is now impervious to those larger cultural issues and internal discipleship issues. We alone will persevere against the Goliath of mainline malaise. People will refuse to accept a reality when the story in which it is packaged is too bleak, dire, or simply boring. We can’t scare folks into doing the right thing.
But we can tell our story in a way that demands a future without neglecting the present. Austrian philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich said it this way: “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”
While the church is committed to changing the world, let me suggest that we need to start by changing our story. A future with hope is one we can build together intentionally, while the future of fear is one from which we can only run haphazardly. The difference is the story we decide to tell.
So you want those millennials to start attending your church? Great! A funeral in progress may not be the strongest story we can tell. So let’s stop telling the tale about the death of the church and start writing the story about the future of the church. Our rewrite cannot ignore current realities, but it must refuse to be limited by them.