Awareness of the steady decline of church membership is not anything new. All one has to do is type in their internet search browser church membership decline, and articles and studies can be found all over the internet documenting the downward trend of church affiliation and attendance. During my time in seminary, we grappled with this issue head on. How does the church continue to exist into a post-modern era? What will the state of the church be for the remainder of the 21st Century?
Much attention has been given to the trends of the millennial generation and their distrust, dislike, and disaffection with the institutional church. As of 2015, Pew Research Center documented that “35% of adult Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated.” Furthermore, an article titled “59 Percent of Millennials Raised in a Church Have Dropped Out- And They’re Trying to Tell Us Why” offers a 12 prong list of the grievances that Millennials have proposed to explain their growing distance and disdain for the institutional church.
Much of the grievances, as I understand them, stem around issues relating to the church not living up to its professed ideals enshrined in its sacred documents (i.e. scripture). Millennials report being tired of seeing the church not helping the poor, not extending hospitality and compassion, and not being trustworthy with the precious resources of the congregation and those in the community. Therefore, it is not that those in the Millennial generation are purposing to become more secularized. Rather, it appears that the Millennial generation is struggling to reconcile how an institution such as the church can be so vehemently self-righteous while morally inept.
In talking about the role of the church for the twentieth century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that the church needs to “recapture its prophetic zeal” in order to prevent becoming an “irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he described this prophetic zeal as one which reflected the “sacrificial spirit of the early church.” When the church was more than “merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; [but] was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” Thus, in this current generation, it has become increasingly difficult for millennials to ignore the many ways the institution of the church fails to transform the mores of society and remains complicit in the pervasiveness of injustice and inequality in our society.
The church has been and remains complicit in the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, militarism, and greed. The church remains complicit in the issues that promote and propagate homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. As an institution, the church remains complicit in the victimization of those whom Jesus described as “the least of these” (Matt. 25:45). As the article by as the Christian News Broadcast Network insinuates, those of the Millennial generation are waiting for the institution of the church to reflect more of the ideals of justice, righteousness, compassion, and mercy indicative of Christianity’s namesake. To paraphrase a line from my church history professor in Divinity School, people have been more able to find the love of Christ reflected in the public square than in the institution of the church; therefore, the church as been complicit in its own decline and its own degradation.
Thus, due to the church’s miscegenation with power, corruption, and persecution there is likely no hope for sustaining the church for the 21st century. However, I do find that hope remains for the ekklesia!
The ekklesia is the Greek word denoting a gathering or assembly of people, often in public, for the purpose of worship or religious meeting. As as alluded to by Dr. King, through the ekklesia, early Christians functioned in the public square as a radical dissenting presence against corrupt and unjust Roman government. The assembly of the people reflected in a rousing and poignant display the inclusive, diverse, and equitable ministry of Jesus that puts chief among all things concern for the widow, orphan, stranger, and poor. Not hampered by walls, the ekklesia flourished and thrived by making a priority the day to day matters of the community: the marginalized, disinherited, and the castaway. Thus, the ekklesia took head on the needs of the people and preached in word and deed the tenets of the gospel proclaiming the pending day of justice, compassion, mercy, and truth.
As I observe the swath of those of the Millennial generation enter into the streets to protest for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ Pride, Women’s Rights, Healthcare Reform, Fight for 15, Education Reform, and Environmental Justice I cannot help but to see a dissent of the church’s relevant silence on these issues. Furthermore, I cannot help but see a “prophetic zeal” for which their efforts will advance the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s Will for human flourishing. As young people are leaving the pews and entering the public square I cannot help but to see God working to transmute the church into the ekklesia by which God will sustain God’s people for the remainder of the 21st Century. The ekklesia, as it was intended and spoken by Jesus to Peter saying “Upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).