Monday, June 29, 2015

You're Allowed to Grieve the Church's Decline

General Synod, the big biennial national gathering of the United Church of Christ, is happening in Cleveland through tomorrow. I hope to write more about that later this week. In the meantime, I wanted to highlight one other piece of news that has come out of the UCC national offices, which concerns the physical offices themselves:
In its continuous effort to bring in more financial resources to advance the mission and ministry of the United Church of Christ, the denomination’s leaders are signing a letter of intent today, June 10, to sell the national offices building and the adjoining hotel the church owns to a Georgia-based property management firm. The silver-lining in the agreement is that the UCC will continue to make downtown Cleveland its home by leasing the building back for another two decades.  
"This is all very good news for all employees of the United Church of Christ, and cements the commitment of the church to maintaining Cleveland’s Gateway District as home to the National Setting for the next 20 years," said Lee Foley, chief administrative officer of the UCC.
The article goes on to explain some of the terms of the agreement, including a reduction in how much space the UCC will use. As an official media outlet of the denomination, the whole thing is presented in a positive, hopeful light.

The comments paint a much different picture, as have many other opinions that I've read and heard since this news broke. People are worried. People are angry. Some are wondering why a broader conversation about this wasn't hosted leading up to the decision. Many see this as the latest in a long line of signs that we probably won't have a denomination in the next few decades, perhaps even by the time this lease agreement is up.

I read a lot of articles about the decline of the church. I can't count the number of opinions that I've seen or heard in the last ten years about the future of American Christianity. Numbers are down all over the place. Churches are closing, denominations shrinking, institutions dwindling. And everyone has their own theory, their own single root factor, to explain why things are progressing the way that they are.

People don't gather in formal groups the way they used to.

Religious pluralism and an appreciation for multiple viewpoints has been on the rise.

Many are more interested in being "spiritual but not religious," "none," or "done."

It's the Millennials' fault.

It's the Boomers' fault.

People have more options for things to do on Sunday mornings and would rather do any of them.

The church has strayed from The Truth Of The Bible (TM).

A fair number of these analyses, like the article quoted above, have a hopeful tone to them. The decline of the church as an institution is good news, many of them say, because it means we can finally get back to really being the church. No more Constantinian comfort and privilege keeping us from truly following Jesus and helping others! We're entering an exciting and bold new day where the old paradigms are finally passing away and something wonderful and more authentic will take its place. These articles celebrate what is happening, because it means an overdue shedding of heavy baggage for something lighter, more nimble, and more in tune with the rest of the culture.

I confess that, despite living an hour south of Cleveland, I've only ever visited the UCC offices once. It was just a few years ago, when I was invited to be part of a group looking at the future of education in the denomination. I was glad to finally have the chance to visit, and was especially interested in the Amistad Chapel.

The chapel is a beautiful space, very modern yet tasteful. We had opening worship there during our meeting, but I with my love of lingering in worship spaces made sure to steal a chance to meander around during a break. It was during this exploration that I could take time to really notice the elements kept there: the table, made from wood imported from Africa; the organs, one a larger Hammond and the other a more modest Bedient; the artwork, the candles, the hymnals. I now think back to this space, and I wonder about its future. I think about its original purpose of being a sacred place in the middle of a bustling downtown area, and think about the possibility of its no longer being there.

It can be argued that the sidewalk outside can be just as sacred, just as infused with God's presence as the polished room that overlooks it, and I wouldn't argue. Nevertheless, I think about where the organs, paintings, worship books, and all the rest end up if something happens to the space as a whole. Where would they go? Would they ever help bless others, helping to remind them of God's presence in their lives?

People ask these same sorts of questions whenever a church closes. That organ that led our singing for 100 years, that sanctuary in which generations were baptized, married, and commended to God, those classrooms in which questions were asked, that office where pastors both beloved and less so provided counsel...all now gone. Maybe they'll be razed for condominiums or given to a new congregation or just sit dormant until it just falls down, an empty reminder of times past.

And some say, "Good." This includes believers reading the signs of the times and knowing we can't be what we were any more. And there are a million more thought-pieces being written about that at this very moment.

But still, there are lives of faith feeling a lot of disruption and anxiety over what is happening. Treasured spaces and practices that served many people for so long are passing away. Pieces of history are being stashed in storage units or destroyed. Groups of people who long gave each other support are dispersing.

I think that there needs to be more to offer them than "Good."

We're allowed to grieve what is happening. In fact, many will need to. We are certainly called into a new future as disciples and as faith communities, but as with any type of loss, many will not be able simply to barrel forward in joy and thanksgiving. There are lingering emotions that we must be allowed to recognize and that we should affirm in one another. We can't be what we were, but we can be sad while admitting that before moving into what God wants us to do next.