The Church Is Dying; What Do We Do Next?

M. Rev. Ed Jansen and Rev. Dr. Trish Gaffney

Dying Church

Recently, after watching a movie about the life of Francis of Assisi and the growth of the Franciscan Order, we began to consider the questions, “What does it mean to be a leader in the Church?”  “How do we attract people to the gospel, which as Francis put it, to go out, to take nothing with you, to share the gospel, to love everyone, and bring peace wherever you go?”

We wondered how is it possible, as a Christian leader (which includes all of us if we choose) to live without worldly attachment. To live with an open, loving acceptance of ALL people, without considering their worthiness.  To live in a way that brings us not only to love and serve anyone in need, but to seek them out, on purpose!  And to make this the primary purpose of our church.

It is no secret that the Church has evolved since its inception on Pentecost Sunday, nearly 2,000 years ago.  We have seen it change from the time of the early church, maybe out of a desire for organization and order as our numbers grew larger.  Did we weaken the focus of our response to suffering when we did?

From our perspective, the Church in the U.S. has become, for the most part, one whereby we are attracted to what a church offers in terms of programs and services, for ourselves and our families.  Many who seek a church today embrace this attitude. It’s not a bad attitude, it is just incomplete. Caring the most for ourselves and our families appeals to our human nature, of course. We are made this way for our survival, but it is not the gospel. Many of our church leaders today have become caught up in the providing what people seek in order to keep their church alive.

But there is an interesting phenomena going on today. People are leaving the Church in droves and few new people are replacing them.  As Christians and Christian leaders we have helped to created an insatiable desire for more that pleases us, on the one hand, and a rapidly shrinking religion on the other.  Can you see it?

And so we ask, is there hope for the next generation of Christians?  Yes!  Christ promised us that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church.  He promised to walk with us and told us to go out and make disciples.  And he did not say, we don’t need to change and adapt as we go along.

Here’s our vision. Maybe it’s not realistic. Maybe no one would ever grasp our vision, but we offer it anyway, in the hopes that God is using it. Maybe God is calling each of us to become more Christ-centered in action. Calling us back to being a servant church whose main purpose for existing is to touch the lives of the suffering, those whom Jesus reached out to in his earthly ministry.

Now for the nuts and bolts of this vision:  There is a model for this vision which already exists.  The model is called Emmaus Center in Glen Burnie MD.  It is a church, St. Michael’s Old Catholic Mission, but more importantly, it is an outreach ministry — a mission– that draws homeless people and poor people into its community, alongside of “Us”.  It is open 5 days per week, staffed by volunteers, and feeds breakfast and lunch to anyone who walks in the door, free of judgement and free of charge.  It offers Morning Prayer and a bible study each weekday it is open, along with the meals it serves and distribution of donated clothing.  And on Sunday, it holds a Mass, which is sacred to the catholic faith, and where the pews are filled, with all of “Us” together.  Even though it is Catholic in its “style”, it is nevertheless inclusive of all, even those outside the Christian faith or those who profess no faith at all.

In this vision, Emmaus Center would be one of many churches that function in this manner.  Maybe the local Methodist Church has a sense to open up a day care center, free of charge, to anyone who needed help watching their kids while they went to work.  Maybe the Episcopal Church opens up their doors each day to the seniors in the area.  They hold daily exercise programs, crafts and maybe once a week they have a volunteer physician’s assistant come in and address the health needs of the seniors. Maybe the local Roman Catholic Church would help people become citizens by holding classes each day and becoming a place where immigrants could find help from people who speak their language.  Maybe the Presbyterian Church initially had a retired attorney who volunteered her time and now they have an entire network of pro-bono attorneys who help people in need.

Each church in the town would have its own identity, but they’d be known more for their outreach than their denomination.  That is the key!  They are not necessarily known FIRST by their denomination or non-denomination;  rather they are know for the service they provide.

Does this mean that each church must give up their form of worship?  Absolutely not!  We can still honor the practices and theologies of our denomination if we are part of a larger group; it just is not the focal point of the church.  And whatever differences we have with other churches becomes far less important because we are all one in being the arms and legs of Christ to a world he has called us to serve.

That’s the vision!

One might ask, “How in the world do you get the help for such an undertaking?”  “How can such an endeavor be financed?”   Good questions and from the bottom of our hearts, we believe that if this is of God, God will provide the help you need as you need it.  It has been this way for Emmaus Center, through a growing group of like-minded people and the families of those it has touched.  As God’s ministry and care for those who have less than we do, it grows!  That is to say, a church does not have to have “all their ducks in a row to begin.”   It is likely that the ministry too, will evolve as that church moves forward.  Remember, you can’t steer a boat that’s anchored!

Will this vision come to pass in the life of other churches?  We don’t know. And we believe that if this is of God, we are merely the seed planters.  If this post resonates with you, pray about it. Ask the LORD to show you what you’re to do next.   Not that we have all the answers, we don’t.  But if you sense this is something you want to pursue, we are at your service, in Christ.

Love in Christ,

Ed and Trish

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