The good news behind the church’s struggles

By Michael Sullivan, Special Contributor…

When I was in high school, I attended our parish youth group every week; I suppose the handwriting was already on the wall as to my future vocation. Frisbee, scavenger hunts and spaghetti suppers, along with some Bible studies, I remember to this day were the programs of our youth. Of course, a good summer beach trip was thrown in for good measure. Youth from all over our town attended, upwards of 75 each week, and although we were clear about our denomination, and proud of it, the denominational mixture was as varied as a good vegetable soup.

Michael Sullivan

It was easy to go to church. No one had a soccer game. Stores did not open, and even restaurants operated with smaller staffs. Blue laws were alive and well, enforcing a kind of society we took for granted. My Sundays literally consisted of Sunday school, worship, a massive lunch, homework and youth group. It was just what we did. It was just what almost everyone did.

Fast forward: Church is one option among many. Today, our children are pulled in a million directions. Their sports are year-round and involve multiple teams in myriad locations, some playing in excess of 10 games in one weekend alone; the concept of community sports is almost a lost memory for many. Malls are open every day of the week, and virtually every store seeks Sunday shoppers. Few store clerks know you by name, and when you ask how they are, they react with stunning disbelief. Few of us sit at a Sunday lunch like the one I grew up with week after week, having leftovers or sandwiches instead. We don’t even read the Sunday Times any more, or at least not in print, and when we do, it’s usually at Starbucks on a digital something.

As an Episcopal priest, I’ve watched this societal shift and community disconnect manifest itself in all kinds of ways. A few examples from the view of a 21st-century cleric who has been at this a little while:

• Among my own denomination, we rarely ask for the Book of Common Prayer to be signed upon a baptism, wedding or funeral anymore; in fact, we don’t even purchase the prayer book for our children.

• Weddings take place outside the church with more frequency, many times without a priest or minister.

• Confirmation is no longer a required and expected rite of passage for many families.

• People think of an active member as one who attends every month or two.

The list goes on.

According to the Pew Charitable Trust and Hartford Seminary, the number of people attending church regularly is shrinking faster than anyone could have ever predicted. The shrinkage is pretty much the same across all church groups and theological viewpoints; from Baptists to Methodists to Presbyterians to Catholics to non-denominational groups, the Church is getting smaller. (Catholicism has grown with immigration but declined sharply when immigration numbers are removed). People still say they are religious, claiming belief in God, but they do not see a community of faith, or perhaps even a community at all, as having an important role.

Now this might surprise you, but here’s my take: This is good news. What we are experiencing is a rebirth of Christianity, not a death as some describe. We are in the midst of a rekindling of who we are and what we are called to be in the name of Christ.

Phyllis Tickle, a respected voice in Christianity today, says that this rebirth is not a generational shift. She argues that Christianity has been through a major reconfiguration every 500 years or so, with somewhat rough pivot points of the Apostolic Period and separation from Judaism (1st Century), the Constantinian/Chalcedonian Era (4th-6th Centuries), the East-West Schism (11th Century), the Protestant and Catholic Reformations (16th-17th Centuries), and today’s emerging Church. What we experience, she says, is just a part of the rhythm of history.

In the midst of this systemic change, many of us feel adrift. What we have loved, what has shaped us in Christ and blessed us with community, is struggling. Real life challenges of aging buildings, declining budgets and poor attendance call into question so many things about our practice that it can indeed be overwhelming.

But take a hard look to discover new life and hope. I am learning much from millennials who are helping me understand new ways of communication, new ways of telling the story, and new ways of reaching those lost and living in fear. I am witnessing a renewed call to mission and ministry among the marginalized, including servanthood practiced in our inner cities.

Possibly most filled with hope are discussions about the structures of our denominations. Governance we took for granted, indeed that bred complacency, is being thoughtfully reconsidered. We are finally seeing that we have made the structures idols in some cases and that revision in how we discern might just invite the Holy Spirit into our midst.

So, truth be told, I don’t want to go back to the youth group of my teenage years and the church of yesterday, for I don’t want to forget all that we have learned over the last decades. I want to charge boldly ahead into the future, knowing that while things may indeed change, the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ speaks alive and well to all generations.

The love of God in Christ Jesus will herald a path forward for us, and with youth groups that meet on other days, with children’s groups that innovate to make programs more accessible, in book studies and study groups led by clergy and laity alike, we will find Christ in one another.

The Rev. Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church, in Atlanta. This essay first appeared at

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