This excerpt by Rachel Srubas is a humorous—yet heartfelt—take on the issue of mainline denominational decline. It was originally published in the February/March/April 2014 issue of Weavings Journal and is available in full on the Weavings website.
I’m a miserable human being. Who will deliver me from this dead corpse? Thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! —Romans 7:24-25a, CEB
I’m a pastor in a numerically declining mainline church denomination. I have a recurring dream, or, more accurately, variations on a dream. Each dream is unique in its surreal particulars, but the theme is maddeningly consistent: Something’s gone awry at church. Those of us who still attend church have assembled to worship God, but we can’t. I’m unable to lead the liturgy because dangling trapeze artists are distracting us, or a thousand burning candles are setting fire to our bulletins, or my tongue is paralyzed, or congregants keep driving away from church forever, their bumper stickers asking, “Have You Hugged a None Today?”
Oh, wait. That last part doesn’t happen in my dreams. It happens in the real world, where—we are frequently reminded—the institutional church offers little of value anymore, unless you like rummage sales. And I, along with many others have become captive to the belief that the church is dead or dying.
By announcing the obsolescence of the mainline church, a handful of religious thought leaders bolster their reputations and fuel ecclesial panic, or at least pastoral night terrors. Arguably, they hasten the mainline church’s demise (which they might consider progress). I’m thinking of joining their movement because, let’s face it, institutional religion really is deeply uncool and you can build a profitable career saying so. Remember the Death of God Movement of the 1960s? Remember that notorious red-on-black Time magazine cover that boldly asked America, “Is God Dead?” That was a blip. Today’s viral Death of Church Movement has captivated the public religious imagination with marketing firepower the God-is-Dead gang never dreamed of.
Proclaiming the Death of the Church
Don’t you want to be a stakeholder in this sexy disestablishmentarian spiritual emergence thing? Resistance is futile, so you might as well get on board. By “get on board” I mean, of course, get off the board of your local old-timey church and get online. Read a lot of blogs about the church’s irrelevance. Better still, write your own blog about the croaking of Christianity, or, as I like to call it, Christi-yawnity. In due time, some savvy publisher will offer you a book deal. Then will come the speaking engagements! Church-affiliated conference organizers at whose denominational deathbeds you regularly tweet will invite you to beat up on their faith traditions before a live audience of gray haired churchgoers who have faithfully served Christ for decades. Imagine the astonishment on these senior citizens’ faces when the names of their own churches loom large in your PowerPoint necrology report. Note: when presenting your talk, make frequent mention of the Holy Spirit. Never pronounce a church dead without first administering a palliative dose of pneumatology. You need people to like you well enough to buy up lots of copies of your book, Church of the Living Dead: Protestant Zombies and How to Escape Them. And you certainly want them to pre-order the sequel, Dawn of the Nones: The Afterlife of the Church.
* Nones: A demographic term for religiously unaffiliated persons
Read our review of Rachel’s most recent book, The Girl Got Up: A Cruciform Memoir.