On Declining Empires: Part Five

This post is the final of a five-part series.  To read the other parts, click here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4

 In the tale of Awful Group, there’s one vital element to the story at which I’ve hinted but haven’t yet fully explained.  If my experiences at that singles bible study could generate such penetrating anxiety week after week, why did I keep going back?  I did it because Awful Group offered me some hope.

If any lesson can be learned from this 5-part meditation on the demographic decline of evangelicalism, it must be that the solution to the evangelical church’s problems will not be found in treating the symptoms of that decline.  The small numbers of people under 40 in many evangelical churches may be an easy problem to identify once we look for it, but we’ve already seen that attacking the problem head-on can be counterproductive, since it risks creating new divisions and perpetuating the problem. As a result, implementing more deliberate demographic ministry strategies to address this decline will – at best – slow rather than stop the bleeding.  The solution lies in refusing to confuse the demographic symptoms of a decline with the underlying disease.  The solution lies in emphasizing hope.

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Over the years, the white evangelical church has exercised its power in a variety of ways that are well known – electing presidents and changing American politics among them.  There’s another area of church power, however, that this series has briefly addressed: the church has profound power to shape the identities of members. When Awful Group told me my value derived from whether or not I was a professional, I internalized that message despite my efforts not to.  The church’s demographic vision invented new boundaries for my identity, just as churches everywhere do for their members.

This is the root of the disease afflicting evangelicalism: churches often spend too much time reminding people of who they are instead of inspiring them with who Jesus will help them be.  It often relates to the demographic problems of evangelicalism; that was my experience at Awful Group and that’s certainly an issue for people under 40 who don’t have children.  Even so, the problem is bigger than that.  People need to hear a message that their identity is rooted in hope, and any message about identity that focuses too heavily on the present rather than the future obscures that foundation in hope.

Don’t get me wrong: every church aspires to be a place of hope.  Evangelicalism, however, doesn’t always live up to that aspiration.  This failure is tragic on several levels, but more than anything, it’s a tragic betrayal of the church’s role in the world.  The church, with all of its power over matters of identity, should be infusing the faithful with enough hope to redefine them.  As a whole, the church should be THE repository of hope in the world.  Too often it is not, and so the evangelical church is slowly dying.

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When we talk about matters of identity in the evangelical church, hope seldom comes up.  In part, this is because the evangelical church has become so good at explaining the minutiae of the faith that the big picture is often lost; we talk about all the reasons for the hope we should have, but we forget both to mention the hope and to act like we actually have it.  We pronounce ourselves saved by grace, and proceed to wring our hands about the direction of the world.  We mention our knowledge that God is truly good and wins in the end, and then we share statistics about the demise of the family and fret about which party won the most recent elections.  We read about Jesus helping the lame walk, the blind see, and the dead rise, and we commence discussions about cutting our missions budgets because the economy is unsteady and giving is down.  Whatever else the evangelical church adds to the identities of evangelicals, far too often it does not add hope.

In this, the evangelical church is a shameful failure.

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At this point, some of you are snidely thinking that I’ve lost my way; hope isn’t the transcendent message of the church, Jesus is.  To which I say: sort of.  For one thing, Jesus isn’t a message.  He’s the Son of God, and if someone is going to know him, they have to make an effort.  The key point, however, is that before someone takes the time to know Jesus for themself, they need a reason to put forth that effort.  That reason is hope.

Others will object that the evangelical church needs to grow deeper, not broader.  What we need are more strong Christians, not simply more Christians.  This is a stupid contention; the Great Commission assumes that part of reaching more people will be discipling them, and if the church is ever choosing between the two options, the church is wrong.  Hope motivates discipleship, and we needn’t choose.

I know it’s more common to hear people talk about love as the church’s mission, message, and raison d’etre.  This isn’t entirely wrong, but I’ve had work environments that gave me a lot of love; coworkers that became like family.  People can find love in many places, and the absence of young people in evangelical churches shows that they must be finding it elsewhere these days.  Hope is different.  I’ve never had a workplace that filled me with the kind of hope that could sustain me.  In fact, I’ve only seen hope like that in one place, and that’s why I think hope is the church’s comparative advantage.

You know who will be drawn to a message of hope?  White people and people of color.  Rich people and poor people.  Young people, old people, and even old people who think they’re young.  Married people and single people.  Young professionals, grad students, and people with anxiety issues.  Everyone.

Hope transcends all demographic groups, because everyone wants to live a life of hope.

We have a hope that can be found nowhere else; a hope that transcends all boundaries and lasts longer than life itself.  Truly apprehending a hope that deep and that profound should change a person; and a community of such people – which is what evangelical churches claim to be – would arrest evangelicalism’s decline by attracting people from every demographic slice of America.  That’s the solution.  Instead of self-doubts, feelings of inadequacy, fears about the future, or suspicions of unworthiness, the identities of evangelicals should burst with hope for improvement and a confidence that no personal shortcomings will matter now or ever.  God wins, and we’re along for the ride as his children.  Nothing else should matter.  The evangelical church needs to learn to hope, and until it does, the decline will proceed.

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