American churches: A failure to thrive?
As disengagement from religious institutions grows, perhaps all American faith communions should examine what it means to thrive in the present and future church.
By Bill Leonard
Kidshealth.org posts this description of a common cross-generational medical disorder: “Although it's been recognized for more than a century, failure to thrive lacks a precise definition, in part because it describes a condition rather than a specific disease. Kids who fail to thrive don't receive or are unable to take in, retain, or utilize the calories needed to gain weight and grow as expected.” It concludes: “This is a general diagnosis, with many possible causes.”
The term failure to thrive (FTT) came to mind this week as the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported that the number of adult Protestants in the U. S. has fallen to around 48 percent, the first time since polling began that American Protestants have not held a religious majority.
Press reports suggest that this is no big surprise, since Protestant numbers have been dropping consistently for years. More alarming for organized religionists, however, is the dramatic growth of those who indicate no religious affiliation or engagement whatsoever. This figure, for years plateaued at around 7 percent of the population, jumped to nearly 15 percent in the last five years and now to 20 percent in the Pew surveys.
While some of these folks may be “believers and not belongers,” pursuing spirituality outside organized religion, a substantial number appear to claim no religious concerns at all. This new data offers further evidence that many trends predicted in American religious life are now realities that exist deep inside the culture, impacting communions across the ideological and demographic spectrum.
Given those developments, the phrase “failure to thrive” offers medical descriptions that seem strangely poignant when applied to ecclesial realities. Pubmed.gov notes that children are not the only ones who can fail to thrive.
FTT can “describe a gradual decline in physical and/or cognitive function of an elderly patient, usually accompanied by weight loss and social withdrawal that occurs without immediate explanation.”
For seniors, the article continues, “Early recognition and management of FTT can reduce the risk of further functional deterioration” -- an equally valid possibility for the church.
Hospiceofthecomforter.org offers a dire commentary applicable to individuals and congregations alike, noting that FTT “is caused by multiple chronic conditions and functional losses. Often, the causes of the deteriorating condition are irreversible or sometimes even unidentifiable.”
Whether they use the actual phrase, many Christian communions, Protestant and Catholic, Evangelical and Mainline, are increasingly compelled to ask if they demonstrate symptoms of a failure to thrive, hoping such indicators are not yet “irreversible.”
One set of all-too-brief diagnostic possibilities include the following:
First, congregations might begin not by asking if they are growing, but if they are thriving. Are they engaging their constituents in ways that provide meaning, communal support, spiritual identity and an invigorating sense of mission within and without? Such churches may thrive even when numerical growth seems less discernable. Thriving churches offer a unique witness in their specific communities.
Second, to thrive, congregations may need to reaffirm their spiritual identity, a sense of who they are under God. This source of identity involves a hospitable traditionalism, offering persons a place to stand, underscoring the significance of their identity in Christ, a people bound together by powerful ideas, rituals and histories amid a continuing quest for faith, grace and perhaps even justice. This traditionalism is hospitable when it turns persons outward on the world, not inward on themselves.
Third, a thriving congregation is one that claims its own spiritual, theological and sociological location and asks how best to energize a constituency and a community. This means continually reaffirming those rites, old and new, that unite and sustain, not only in timeless sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, but also in traditions formed from particular place and need. It asks, “Who are we in the global church and in our own specific spiritual and geographic setting?”
Fourth, a thriving congregation will be brave enough to confront the wonder and danger of particularism and pluralism. It asks, “What are the theological, ethical and spiritual foundations that bind our consciences, and how does our calling carry us into the wider arena of ideas, traditions and world views different from our own, bound together by common concerns and tasks?” Thus centered, individuals are better prepared to engage those different from themselves, connecting when possible for the common good.
Finally, thriving churches might develop certain signature ministries that invigorate their people, engaging them with each other while responding to the needs around them. Such ministries incorporate the church’s enduring call to bind up the broken-hearted, creative ways by which specific faith communities attempt to live out their Jesus-identity in the world, thriving with or without a statistical majority.
It has happened before: “[A]nd, breaking bread in their homes they shared their meals with unaffected joy, as they praised God and enjoyed the favor of the whole people. And day by day the Lord added new converts to their number.” (Acts 2: 47)
We can only hope.
OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.