Friday, March 20, 2009

Sunday Reflections for March 22, 2009: "What business are churches in?"

There is a lot of anxiety in the newspaper world these days. Here in Chicago the Tribune Company has filed for bankruptcy and the Sun-Times is tottering. Across the country newspapers are shutting down, reducing publication, going exclusively online, undergoing radical redesign, or in some way struggling to manage an escalating financial crisis through layoffs and other cost-cutting measures.

Many observers are saying all this is too little, too late. The number of newspapers has been shrinking for decades. A century ago some cities had a dozen or more daily papers, often with several in foreign languages. Now many cities have only one. (Growing up the paper our family read, The Daily News, was one of those casualties.) The simple explanation for this is competition. In the 20th century radio and television took their toll as alternative sources of news and information. Now it’s the internet.

Can newspapers be saved? Perhaps not. The biggest problem is the simple fact that putting all those sheets of paper in customers hands or on their doorsteps is expensive. Secondly, more and more of what newspapers tell us can be found more quickly online, usually for free, sitting at our home computer, at the office, or looking at our smart phone. And that last device has become a means of reporting itself by using its built-in camera and blogging and information sharing services like Twitter and YouTube. This is how the world got much of the first news about the Hudson River plane landing.

While the newspaper crisis is an important topic in itself, it has also gotten my attention because of its similarities to the crisis in the church. To put it starkly, we are asking the same question: Can churches survive? The decline of the Church in the United States has actually paralleled that of newspapers pretty closely. In Europe the decline has been even worse.

Why has this happened? It’s tempting, of course, to answer in some theological way, such as that people are more sinful. I think that would be a pretty hard case to make. No, here too I think the newspaper comparison is more helpful. The church is suffering from increased competition. More and more of the services churches have provided can now be gotten elsewhere.

This is a topic too big for a single essay but let me give some idea what I am talking about. For a long time one thing that kept churches thriving in this country was immigration. Congregations helped people in countless ways to make the transition to their new homeland. Here were people who spoke your native language (and cooked the foods you liked). They could help you find housing, a job, a spouse. They helped you in times of crisis. They became your new family.

Today immigrants continue to fill churches but their numbers are far fewer. For most people, the immigration experience is now far in their family’s past and keeping ethnic traditions alive much less a priority. For example, the loss of energy in American Lutheranism has closely followed the loss of importance of members’ German or Scandinavian heritage.

There are countless other changes that have also occurred, especially in terms of the social function churches performed. Frankly, for many people in the past, church was one the few social outlets they had that got them away from work and family. Now we can be overwhelmed by the options. “Church? Well, I’m just not sure I have time.”

But what about the Church’s theological or spiritual function? This, I think, is the most interesting question—and the hardest to answer. One thing the recent ARIS report on religious identity showed (see last week’s Reflections) is that people are not leaving churches for other religions or religious organizations. Where are people getting their spiritual needs met? Asking that raises what I think is now the real question for churches to ask: What are people’s spiritual needs today? Or has that become a meaningless question?

One recent article about newspapers’ problems talked about previous crises various industries have faced. The mistake they all made was being confused about their core business. Railroads, for example, should have realized their business was transporting people rather than running trains. With that understanding they would have begun to expand into the new technology of airplanes and survived the death of passenger rail. In which case, we might be flying Santa Fe to Los Angeles instead of United.

For newspaper companies the key is to understand that making newspapers is not their business but providing news and information. How can they do that now? Similarly I would say churches need to be asking: What is the real business we are in?

Another article that’s gotten a lot of attention is “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” and it makes much the same point. In many places you can substitute "churches" for "newspapers” and you’ve got basically the same story. The author makes the important point that we are in a revolutionary time and as a result the outcome will not be clear for a while. We can’t know what’s going to take the place of newspapers right now—but that doesn’t mean they won’t be replaced.

The clarifying concept, he says, is understanding that “society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” And that left me wondering what a comparable statement would be for the Church (and for organized religion generally because Christianity is not alone in this). “Society doesn’t need churches. What we need is ________.” Asking this, it becomes obvious Christianity isn't as far along as the newspaper industry in its self-analysis. Instead, we’re still choking on that first statement and can’t get past it.

Are we in the “church business” or is it something else? In the first century Judaism discovered it could exist without a temple. In the 16th century a good portion of Christianity learned it didn’t have to have a pope. Given what’s happening all around us it seems churches too need to be “thinking the unthinkable”. In which case I can't help remembering the words of Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing . . . do you not perceive it?”


Anonymous said...

I love the questions that you are asking about organized religion. They overlap very closely with the questions I've been working on for years. As a clergyperson, you are framing the issues with admirably scrupulous honesty. The "what next?" question that fills in the blank is a bit of a stumper. Maybe it's not just one thing. Maybe it needs a whole lot of answers.

Doug said...

Thanks! As you might imagine, my tendency towards a blunt honesty is not always appreciated. I am finding, however, that more and more clergy and lay leaders are aware that the church as we've known it is coming to an end. But it is always hard to recognize something is ending when you don't know what is going to take its place. "What next?" is indeed a stumper but I think you are on to something in thinking it probably won't be one thing. At this point I am imagining something more along the lines of east Asian religion whose expressions are more decentralized and independent. We're really just at the beginning of this transformation, however.