In a recent issue of The Messenger, Brother Galen Hackman wonders if anyone is concerned or even wonders about the decline in numbers in our church. I assure him that he’s not alone. Since graduating from Bethany in 1979 this was an ongoing concern of mine. It’s important to know that I didn’t grow up Brethren, I went to Bethany because I liked its emphasis on lived service and devotion to Scripture. I also came from a religiously mixed background which included friends who helped build Willow Creek Church, a very large “mega-church.” It was clear to me then that churches, especially churches that went anti-racist during the civil rights struggle, were in trouble. But the world needed the witness to the love of Christ, why not make it big and beautiful like a Willow Creek? After attending Bethany and having fallen in love with Brethren theology I thought that if people just heard the culturally radical message of Jesus and his love, they would flock to him.
I thought that if we just started some new churches we could find a pattern that would work. I tried. The one in Chicago didn’t get off the ground. The one in Fremont, California succeeded for several years, there is still a homeless shelter we helped start there, but the church didn’t sustain. The one in Denver is still going, but is small. In larger church settings I’ve done some radical small groups which have been like new churches.
In each of these settings, with the intention of actually living the gospel, for a time we were the church and we carry that with us, wherever we go. But however nice that sounds, it does not create the institutional church that nurtured me, institutions seemingly needed to carry the message from one generation to another. That takes seminaries and buildings and Sunday Schools, doesn’t it?
Why don’t the Brethren grow? Let me name three reasons.
1. The gospel which is based in Jesus’ command to love is unpopular in an American world based on violence and material accumulation. You really do have to trust the unseen God if you are going to walk among the Boko Haram without worldly defense. You really do have to trust in the unseen God if you will give up your economic advantage to care for the poor. We Brethren keep coming back to Jesus. No matter how much we try to dumb down our faith to make it palatable for the common American, we have to revert to Jesus, the Lord, who said, “love your enemies.”
2. But then, if living in the way of Christ is our ideal, we ourselves don’t usually live up to that. We Brethren are so split on how to read our Bibles, how to interpret the Word (and our interpretations usually follow our political inclinations). Our Brethren unity is most commonly found in Brethren heritage. Personally, this doesn’t work for me and has worked less and less over the last several generations of Brethren. Who cares if you went to Manchester? But when we get divisive with each other, the easiest solution is to go to that so-called common heritage. Besides, it was this very heritage that brought forth Anna Mow and Dan West and Stan Noffsinger. Amazing things have been done through these folks and their like.
But the problem for church growth is obvious, a glue which is found in heritage either has no room for new-comers, or takes a concentrated, exhausting effort for a new-comer to become part of the family, or dumbs itself down and becomes less and less distinguishable from the prevailing culture.
3. Thirdly, the world is less and less hospitable to our church life. Generally speaking, humans find scape-goats; it’s just part of what we do. For a good number of Americans “religion” has become one of the scape-goats. (Broadly speaking, a scape-goat is one upon whom the psychic garbage of any group is thrown in an attempt to keep the group in balance. For instance, scape-goating includes all racism. Whenever a group stands together laughing at or deriding another so that they can feel good about themselves, they've scape-goated that other.) Right now the current generation sees the dangerous consequences of fundamentalism— an edge found in every religion (and population!) — and chooses to smear all religion, the good with the bad, with fundamentalism’s evils. So, younger folks, starting with the baby-boomers but growing with intensity with each ensuing generation, choose to disdain “religion.”
Combine this with a wealthy economy that has a language of individualism in spite of the evident communitarian nature of our life together and people just are not joining meaningful groups. Many even avoid the commitments of marriage. As the larger culture becomes less practiced in how to be together, our churches reflect that.
As I said, I didn’t grow up Brethren, but have spent my adult life with them. I have met many people who have and continue to give their lives to Jesus in some incredible ways, people I would never set myself beside. Their faith in Christ has been and continues to be simply inspirational. I have found that deep change is not popular change and that the health of society is utterly dependent upon those few who hear the call of Christ and live that deep, spiritual change.
In my own ministry there has been real “success” by my disregarding that previous need to grow the institutional church. Now when people ask me what my church is about I say something like: “we are a church that doesn’t kill people” . . . they swallow hard and then I say . . . “we work to bring the peace of Jesus for everyone, no matter who they are.” There have been folks who simply reject that nonviolent and inclusive Jesus and walk away and that’s ok by me, God will find other paths for them. And then there are some who hear that message and somehow agree. Somebody else can care for many people using culturally attractive incarnational compromises, the incarnated God certainly loves them, too. I want to be with people who want to learn to love their enemies as Christ loves his enemies. I no longer care how many.