The Christian church is in the season of Lent. These weeks before Holy Week and Easter are meant to be a time of introspection on our life and relationship with God. In that context, I’ve decided to reflect here on this blog about some recent talks I attended by Diana Butler Bass, an Episcopal historian and public theologian. She’s done a lot of study on the state of the Christian church in America today, and I’d like the chance to reflect on some of what she shared through the lens of Lent. While we usually think in personal, individualistic terms about our Lenten focus, I’m finding the need to think about Christian community these days.

One reason I want to do this is that I think church members and leaders are frequently misdirecting their energies, worries, and even prayers. There’s no question that the number of people attending Christian church services on Sunday mornings is dropping. Unfortunately, too much focus is on what their particular church is doing wrong or needs to do better. As is so often the case in America today, we make it “all about us” and miss what’s happening at the broader cultural—community—level.

You see, Diana made it clear in her talk that the “problem” (if that’s even the right word!) with church attendance isn’t about what’s happening at any specific church. Instead, it’s about cultural trends, which no individual church leader can likely impact. For example, did you know that places with great natural beauty have lower church attendance? It’s probably natural(!) that many people would rather spend time worshiping God out in nature rather than inside old church buildings. It’s logical, but it doesn’t have to mean we should go out chasing people down on the hiking trails.

I’ve written here before about the inevitability of change and our need to embrace it. These truths can be hard to accept when that change doesn’t “look good”—when church pews are empty and budgets aren’t balanced. Yet there is good news in the data, if we know where and how to look for it. For example, while Christianity among whites is declining, Christianity among people of color is growing. This gives us the opportunity to embrace a future of shared culture, traditions, and leadership—if we are willing to do so.

This means willingness is key—and there are lots of Christian church responses that haven’t been so helpful. I’ll address some of those next week, then shift to where Diana finds hope in three key aspects of the life of faith in the remaining weeks of Lent.

Meanwhile, I invite you to reflect upon your own response to change and, if it’s relevant to your circumstances, your perspective on declining church attendance numbers in America today. What have been your reactions and your prayers on this issue over the years?

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