Is the church going extinct?
Perhaps in the last few weeks, you’ve seen a meme like this one:
I certainly have.
Between the pandemic, the murder hornets, the killing of another black man, the protests, and the riots, I've heard more people than ever before say something like, "It feels like we're living out Revelation."
Because of that, we decided to begin exploring the book of Revelation this week in our youth ministry. I thought doing so would be a good way to take a deep dive into Scripture while also continuing to integrate current events.
We started at the beginning of Revelation, by exploring the letters to the seven churches. Each of these letters is something of a performance review and in the one we looked at, the one to Ephesus, Jesus tells the church that if it fails to return to their first love (to Jesus and loving others), he’ll blow out their lampstand. Scholars commonly interpret this as saying that without Jesus, the church of Ephesus will go extinct.
This led to an interesting conversation with our teens about whether or not they think today’s church is in danger of going extinct.
Although our leaders were quick to say that thanks to today’s teen, they don’t think the church is in danger of becoming extinct, many of our teens disagreed.
Some pointed to the research that shows that with increasing frequency, teens are simply not interested in the church. They identify as spiritual but not religious and are dismayed by the church’s apparent hypocrisy.
Others were quick to point out how often the church fails to speak into the things that really matter to them – in particular, issues related to race and LGBTQ issues. Why would they want to be part of a church that simply isn’t relevant to their lives?
As a professional church worker, I was dismayed by these comments but not surprised.
I thought it was particularly interesting when one of our seniors mentioned that maybe this wouldn’t be an extinction like that of the dinosaurs. Instead, maybe the church as it is now will simply die in order to allow something new to replace it.
Such an interesting comment for this moment in time, when our churches have been forced to evolve and change quickly, to pivot to virtual worship and to figure out how to gather in new ways.
As various parts of the country have begun to reopen, I’ve watched as many of my colleagues in youth ministry have rushed to regather their ministries. Online youth ministry discussion forums are filled with youth pastors strategizing about new policies to keep their kids safe and brainstorming games that can be played while social distancing.
After my conversation with my teens this week, these discussions leave me feeling frustrated. It seems that we want to just continue doing what we’ve always done… perhaps because this is what we know how to do. This is what we’ve been taught and programmed to do.
But when I listen to our teens, I hear them crying out for something new.
They don’t want to regather and do the same thing they’ve always done.
They want to be part of a church that speaks into their lives. They want to be part of a church that leads. They want to be part of a church that fights for justice for all people.
Youth pastors - It seems to me we have an opportunity here.
Rather than just seek to regather as quickly as possible and keep doing what we’ve always done, albeit from six feet apart, what if we instead started over?
What if we met with our teens and listened to them?
What if we asked them to be part of creating a new form of church for a new moment in history – a church that might not only survive this apocalyptic time we’re living in but also lead the way forward?
I could be wrong, but I suspect that our teens might just be ready to be part of - and even lead - such a church.
I suspect they might even be willing to confess our church’s corporate sin, repent of it, and truly turn away and start something new.
I don’t know what that new thing is yet.
But I know I want to help them create it.