There’s much talk about and evidence for decline in the church. I myself write extensively about it. But what if lack of vision or discipleship systems, or the changing culture aren’t the only explanations for this decline? What if the church is in decline not because it has failed but precisely because it has succeeded?
Here’s what I mean. In many ways, the Kingdom message of Jesus has effectively made its way out of the cloistered environs of religious literature, liturgy and institutions to star on the world stage. The Golden Rule is known everywhere. Servant leadership is taught in colleges, universities and business schools. Exercising care for the poor has been taken up by untold numbers of non-profits and NGO’s. Increasing standards of housing, education, healthcare, and equal rights are concerns in countries the world over. And as I wrote about recently, Steven Pinker observes in his quantifiably optimistic volume, Enlightenment Now, equal access to these elements of communal well-being has been increasing over time. Not coincidentally, communal well-being is an important aspect of the biblical definition of salvation.
The bottom line is that loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving God has made its way into the culture at large. Christian principles permeate the secular world. The light indeed shines brightly in the dark. The church is not the only way that people bring love into the world.
In fact, people are excellent at organizing themselves to do good. There are races and walkathons for every cause. Shelters and food banks are staples in communities of almost every size. The non-profit sector is growing much faster than the for-profit sector. Even the for-profit world has shifted. Social entrepreneurs and B Corporations bring about positive societal change even as people shop. Personal and professional growth organizations such as Landmark Worldwide empower participants to spearhead projects benefiting the communities around them.
Just as John the Baptist had to decrease so that Jesus could increase, perhaps the church’s decline is a sign that at last Jesus’ Kingdom-consciousness has gained a firm footing in the world. If this is the case, the decline of churches is a good and necessary thing. It’s just might be a sign of our success.
Church leaders, as you look to the new year, rejoice that Jesus’ message is alive and well in the world. Take heart that your collective sermons have shifted the consciousness of the planet. Be assured that your work matters, that your efforts count, and that you are indeed co-creating Kingdom miracles with Jesus. At the same time, be of good courage in leading your congregations into their next vision. A new generation awaits.
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