Several of you forwarded to me a recent article from the Atlantic by Jake Meador titled, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church.”
Drawing on the new book, The Great Dechurching, Meador does something new in this “church decline” genre. He doesn’t blame churches. At least not too much. He blames the decline in church participation on American society. Here’s Meador,
” . . . the defining problem driving out most people who leave is . . . just how American life works in the 21st century. Contemporary America simply isn’t set up to promote mutuality, care, or common life. Rather, it is designed to maximize individual accomplishment as defined by professional and financial success. Such a system leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children. ‘Workism’ reigns in America, and because of it, community in America, religious community included, is a math problem that doesn’t add up.”
There just isn’t time or energy for church. People in my generation say something like this about their adult children. “They’re so busy.” While that may be true, busyness is not so much the root of the problem as a symptom of it. Work has expanded to fill more and more of our lives. Yet even pointing to “Workism” may not go deep enough. A newish term that helps explain what’s up, at least for me, is “self-optimization.”
“Self-optimization” is the idea that you are to be making the most of your time, your skills and your life, every minute of every day. Should you have children, you must see that their days are filled with experiences that advance their skills, experience and prospects. Sports, fitness/ wellness, education and degrees, technical skill acquisition with constant updates/ upgrades, networking, even therapy, can all be strategies for self-optimization.
But church? Not so much. If the prevailing ethic of American society is self-optimization — and I believe it is — church is not an obvious strategy. Not only are churches not tickets for advancement or self-optimization, churches tend to want stuff from you. So there’s the math problem. The adds to your life are not obvious, while the subtracts are.
Of course, as a church-guy, I believe that there are ways church add to, enrich and deepen a person’s life. But most of them aren’t obvious to people these days. And it’s true, churches ask for our time, energy and money. The benefits tend to come, if they do, over time . . . often a very long time. It’s not like a two-week intensive at a gym that provides quick results or a weekend workshop that promises personal transformation.
After starting by blaming society, not churches, for their decline, Meador does eventually get around to laying some of the blame on churches too. But with a twist. Instead of saying that churches ask too much of already busy people, Meador says they don’t ask enough.
He describes an intentional Christian community of which he was a part in New York City. Members shared their financial resources in the style of the early church of the Book of Acts. They also practiced an ethic and life-style of pacifism. This church, i.e., rather than lowering the bar, raised it. “This,” notes Meador, “is admittedly, an extreme example. But this community was thriving not because it found ways to scale down what it asked of its members, but because it found a way to scale up what they provided to one another. Their way of living freed them from the treadmill of workism.”
Meador is arguing that for a church to thrive today it needs to be more of an alternative to frantic, driven and anxious American society, and more counter-cultural in the way that the early church was a counter-culture within the Roman Empire. “The great dechurching could be the beginning of a new moment marked less by aspiration to respectability and success, with less focus on individuals aligning themselves with American values and assumptions. We could be a witness to another way of life outside conventionally American measures of success.”
The writer and Christian, Flannery O’Connor, riffed on Jesus’ words, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” by observing, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Rather than trying to come up with the newest technique to attract people on the culture’s terms, Meador wants the church to be more odd by being true to its founder.
I buy that, to an extent, though I doubt that lots of folks will opt for a congregation where people pool all their money in a common purse. Still, raising the bar in meaningful ways is a better strategy than so lowering it that what a church communicates, perhaps inadvertently, is “This really isn’t important,” “This doesn’t matter all that much.”
What I do buy, for sure, is that people are staggering under the demands of the ethic of self-optimization and a world of workism. We need to hear, and feel in their bones, the gospel message of grace.
“Come to me all ye who labor and overburdened. Take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy and my burden is light, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 28) That is, here, in the gathered community of faith, you can find rest for your souls. Rest in what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. Or to quote the line from a person at a church I visited in NYC recently, “I go to church every Sunday to enjoy my forgiveness.”