At one time I followed the Facebook thread of the author and lecturer Diana Butler-Bass. Butler-Bass is a well-known for her commentaries on the changes in religious culture generally and in Christianity specifically. She is an Episcopalian and on one occasion was the guest of the clergy of the Diocese of West Missouri (where I served in a supply capacity). I found she was tied up in statistics. Statistical charts stored in a PowerPoint presentation are important to her.
While traveling in Scotland she noticed a significant number of closed and repurposed church buildings. I presume most were Scottish Presbyterian structures, but some could have once been Scottish Episcopal Churches. Sadly, many of these buildings, she reports, are now bars and bed and breakfast locations. For her, this is a reflection of the decline of Western Christianity in the British Isles, and by projection, throughout Western Europe.
What can we make of her reports and the data of other statisticians and commentators also reporting on the decline of organized religion in the West? I suppose we can wring our hands and drop our heads in despair and wonder what the future holds. In the Episcopal Church and in Anglicanism in general, we are well aware of the decline of the Church in the West—including North America.
When I came back from Vietnam in 1972, the suburban parish I attended was filled to the brim. People of all ages, ranging from infancy well into their dotage attended Sunday services. There was no problem in recruiting a choir, lay readers, and acolytes. Children eager to learn and inquiring adults filled church school classrooms. No fewer than twenty candidates were presented for confirmation when the bishop came to visit.
Then, something happened. The culture changed.
I still cannot put my finger and organize in my mind what happened. Maybe it was the growth of youth sports requiring young people to spend Sundays on the field either practicing or playing the game. Maybe it was the explosive expansion of professional sports that took people away from the church. Entertainment in the form of rock star shows, race car events, may have contributed to the decline. Possibly the ability of more and more people to take extended vacations or go on weekend adventures—the middle class became more mobile—caused the churches to empty out on Sundays. Who knows? All of these things and more have distracted people from the practice of Sunday worship.
None of these distractions are actually new. There has always been something taking people away from the church Jesus established when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
When we study the history of the Church established by Christ on the rock of Peter, we
can without difficulty note several things that have gone wrong. First, there was the move away from the foundational teachings of Christ to love and serve the least of God’s children. Second, there was the distraction of the Church in becoming an agent of the state and not the proclaiming agency of the rule of God. And then there was the Church’s lack of unity and quarrels over doctrines—many of which could not be justified by the teachings of Jesus. Ultimately, however, the decline in the Church can be laid directly at the feet of those who have declared themselves to be Christian. The behaviors of some are seen as hypocritical, unjust, and self-serving. People often do not want to associate with such behaviors.
Playing football, watching men grapple in wrestling arenas, and cars circle at a mad pace around and oval track are more real to the world than the Church.
But, we cannot deny the statement that the foundation of the Church Jesus gave to Peter to watch over and to be its rock, is holy and will not fade away. The promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church remains a reliable assurance. So, all of those outside influences cannot be used as an excuse.
Why will the Church not fade away?
Jesus said, “The gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” That is, death will not find it; it will not die.
Hades, in Greek mythology, was not a place of torment with the devil and its imps poking pitchforks at the unrepentant. Hades was a Greek god that guarded the underworld, as Sheol in Hebrew mythology. The underworld was a place where the dead languished without hope or purpose. Hades in Greek mythology kept the dead in that place where only the shadow of those once alive existed and eventually faded off into oblivion.
With Hades, that is death, all experience the ultimate condition, but that condition could not destroy the Church—nothing can stand in the way of God’s plan for salvation; not human distractions, and not the powers of evil.
Thus, we can determine with certainty that the Church will not die. In fact, we can say with joyful hope, the Church may ultimately begin to play its vital role of proclaiming the rule of God and teaching that all are the children of God and their task is to seek and do the will of God.
What is the will of God? Simply stated it is, “love God and neighbor.”
Therefore, the Apostle Paul gets it right every time. He taught that being the Church does not require its members to conform to a particular form of worship, dress, or diet. Everyone brings something different to the ministry of proclaiming the rule of God. Everyone who seeks and does the will of God meets the challenge in a variety of ways.
If the Christian expression of faith is not founded on the Rock of Peter and demonstrates that foundation in the historic apostleship, that expression of faith lacks validity. The Church is built on a single rock, and it is the Church that proclaims the rule of God, seeks to do the will of God, and has the keys to the gates paradise. Those who actually wish to be followers of Jesus Christ can with surety stand on that rock.
The One, Holy, Apostolic, and Catholic Church will never die.