Friday, February 27, 2009

Needing a Theology of Church Extinction

In a recent article from the March issue of Christianity Today entitled "The Other Side of Church Growth," Philip Jenkins suggests that in contrast to a theology of church growth, we also need a theology of church extinction. As Stan Guthrie, the interviewer of Jenkins observes: "In our time, we are witnessing an extraordinary phenomenon: the virtual wiping out of the church in a place it has existed for nearly 2,000 years. The plight of Iraq's Christian community reminds us that church expansion is not a constantly upward slope."

While we are fixated in this country on the numerical growth of the church as a sign of the certainty of God's working in this world, how are we to then answer the reality of the contraction of the church in many parts of the world? As Jenkins points out, the killing of churches in these places comes largely as a result of active persecution. At the same time, however, when one area is contracting, another is expanding. Jenkins writes: "...1915 marks the beginning of the end of Christianity in the middle East, and the beginning of mass Christianity in Africa. It's almost as if one door closes and another one opens elsewhere....when Christianity is at its weakest in one area amazing new opportunities open elsewhere. My concern is that when we write Christian history, so often it's a matter of, 'Let's look at this expansion, and let's look at this growth and new opportunity.' We're not really seeing the doors that are closing...."

Jenkins' comments caused me to think also of our situation in this country, and specifically with the state of the Lutheran church itself. I realize that we are not talking here of a true "extinction" due to persecution. So my comments are a bit to the side of this subject (not wanting in any way to trivialize it either.) Nevertheless, a question arises in relation to this for me: how are we to explain the contraction of the church in certain areas, especially the Lutheran church? Many congregations, due, in part, to changing demographics and economics, will no doubt go out of existence in the coming years. Rural churches are particularly vulnerable. Yet this certainly does not explain the demise of all those that close their doors.

Church Growthers will be quick, I would imagine, to point out a failure of these places to "meet the needs" of their constituents, or to remain "relevant." The growth of their mega churches, on the other hand, show the gracious hand of God working among them, proved by their exponential growth. Yet, the contraction of a church or an entire denomination, as is the case for many mainline denominations today, is not always so quickly explained away. Some churches are 'killed,' I am convinced, by the changing of a culture that is weakening the convictions of a whole generation of people in the church today. As one watches the attendance of a church decline, one reality that becomes apparent is that people today lack the commitment to regular worship that their predecessors possessed. It is a generational weakening of the spiritual genetics.

Within synods there is also a frantic effort in these times to revitalize the ranks and reverse decades of numerical decline. Programs and marketing gimmicks are devised as the magic means to stop of hemorrhaging of the membership lists. Yet may its decline indicate something in and of itself that the programs cannot address or correct? May the death of an organization be inevitable due to a combination of factors, such as loss of clear identity and mission, and thus the commitment that comes with that? May there be an issue of faithfulness as well?

Jenkins has touched a nerve here. We need to think about this some more. Perhaps we have obsessed so much about the growth of the church we have failed to think theologically about the extinction of some of its parts. Are there issues of judgment and sin to examine here? Would the church do well to be a little more introspective than it has been? And are there times when extinction is a good thing, or simply, as is indicated in other parts of the world, a sign of the spiritual warfare that characterizes the church which lives and labors under the cross?

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