Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Church Hasn't Had It This Good in 1700 Years

Over the last few weeks I've been having a lot of conversations with folks about the long-trending decline in church attendance, partially due to a recent cover article of The Lutheran entitled "The Shrinking Church."  Perhaps it's just because I'm a naive seminarian, but in all of those conversations I've replied that on the whole, declining church attendance is a good thing, although I've never been all that successful in succinctly saying why I feel that way.  Luckily, I've been spending much of the day snowed in and reading the fortieth anniversary edition of A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone.  While I don't agree with everything in the book, I do fully agree with the following quote, which does a great job summarizing why the decline in church attendance we're experiencing is going to have some really positive effects:
The "conversion" of Constantine to Christianity and the subsequent acceptance of it as the official religion of the Roman empire raise some serious questions about Christendom, especially the possibility of its remaining true to its origin and mandate.  It can be argued that this was the beginning of the decline of Christianity so evident in contemporary American society.  Is it possible for the church to be the church (committed unreservedly to the oppressed in society) and at the same time be an integral part of the structure of a society?  I think not.  If the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of and for the oppressed in society, the church of Christ cannot be the religion of society.  But the official church, which has been most responsible for the transmission of the gospel tradition, has also played a role as the political enforcer of "law and order" against the oppressed by lending divine sanction to the laws of the state and thus serving as the "redemptive" center of an established order (35).
Decreased church attendance in and of itself isn't a good thing of course, but the subsequent removal of the Church from the privileged place its had in society for 1700 years since Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan will definitely be a good thing; such a change in position has the potential to both strengthen the mission of the Church and thus hone its work in supporting the most oppressed members of our society.  I know my position isn't brand new, nor is it fully thought out, so I'd love to hear your response... thanks so much.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently a vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, having recently completed his second year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice building in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

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