The death of the church

Todd Dildine recently did a four-part series on you guessed it, ‘the death of the church’. It’s an analysis of the American scene but I think has much wider implications.

In Part 1 he assesses the landscape and sees that in America it’s not only the church that is declining but in fact community organisations of almost every conceivable sort.

The collapse of the American church and the breakdown of the American community are tied together. When you take a critical look at our society you will discover that America in 2018 is one of the loneliest and most fragmented cultures that has ever existed, and the church has been dramatically infected by this.

Using the work of Robert Putnam and his famous Bowling Alone, Dildine argues

If we want to rebuild the church, we have to understand its problem as part of a much broader issue—we have to identify the force in the environment that’s causing all communities to collapse. What we need to do is examine the “anti-community forces” that are threatening to pull apart all of our communities, and then we can develop strategies that resist these forces to begin cultivating strong communities of Christ again.

Instead the church has been fixing cosmetic problems while ignoring the major issues.

In Part 2 he names the first of his three big ‘anti-community forces’:

The car and modern urban sprawl

Time spent in commuting is essentially time spent alone and as a result of modern transportation we have lost a sense of place. The place where you live is not the place where you work and neither of those places are the places where you shop, and none of those places are the place where you worship, and your friends don’t live in any of those places either.

Although proximity doesn’t equal community it definitely helps. The easier it is to see your friend from church the easier it is to love them.

In Part 3 we find the second powerful anti-community forces

Screens and Technology

One of the main reasons why the church has declined over the past several decades is because of our abandonment of wisdom and submission to the powerful wave of “new technology,” and especially screens.

First the TV, then the PC and now the smartphone. The screens have taken over and are now with us wherever we go. As a result our entertainment has become individual. There was a time when there was one TV in the house and the family would watch together; now there are TVs everywhere and the family watches apart. Now there are phones in the pocket and the family barely recognises each other.

The illustration from the Amish was particularly powerful.

Consider the wisdom of the Amish. When an elder was asked why they don’t have TVs like 97% of America…

We can almost always tell if a change will bring good or bad tidings. Certain things we definitely do not want, like the television and the radio. They would destroy our visiting practices. We would stay at home with the television or radio rather than meet with other people… How can we care for the neighbor if we do not visit them or know what is going on in their lives?”  (Putnam, 235)

The reason the Amish don’t use the TV isn’t because they are anti-technology! They don’t endorse having TV in their communities because they prioritize visiting each other over Netflix. They understand that TV would anchor them inside and slowly create habits in their communities that would inhibit people from visiting one another. And guess what?! They were right

The final part considered the most powerful anti-community force:

The me-culture of individualism


After taking a look at the broader culture, Dildine focuses on the church:

The most popular form of church employed today is a model that accepts a weekly church gathering as its main expression. The majority of parishioners attend a Sunday worship service that consumes about an hour or two a week, and then done — obligation met. In a consumer-driven me culture, the service with the best music and the most magnetic preacher typically attracts the most attention, so many churches focus the bulk of their resources on enhancements like these. Unfortunately, this line of thinking mistakes grabbing attention as synonymous with building commitment.

He argues that the church form should follow its function which is primarily that of a family and that we need to cultivate meetings and gatherings which strengthen the church family.

The posts are long on the problem and short on the solution (which was intentional) but in closing he hints at three key responses to each challenge:

Walkability – The congregation living closer together

Wisdom – The congregation discerning careful, intentional practices with technology

We – The congregation prioritizing gatherings that cultivate family

Read all four parts and think long-term strategy.

Photo by miketnorton

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