John Shelby Spong served as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. In retirement, he has been a prolific writer and speaker. He concluded a recent essay outlining his thoughts on the future of Christianity with these words:
The problems facing institutional Christianity today in the Western world cannot be addressed by tinkering around the edges of our theological formularies or structures . . . We are not today in a temporary status of watching the tide go out with confidence that in time the tide will come back in . We are rather living through a cataclysmic transition from the presuppositions by which we once lived and having no idea how to tell our faith story in terms of the emerging world view for which our religion of yesterday has no relevance. So churches are dying, vast anger, rising out of cultural depression at the loss of yesterday’s meaning and unstoppable changes, are now our daily bread.
The consensus of the past is breaking up. The consensus of the future has not yet been formed. We live in interesting times and dangerous times also. Political shell games and pious rhetoric will no longer suffice.
Before we can move to address these issues we must understand them. I see little present indication that either church leaders or political leaders understand the depth of the problem we face. Time alone will tell, but in the meantime doing church business as usual or practicing politics as usual is a prescription not only for disaster, but for extinction.
I have written extensively about the current state of mainline Protestantism in America. The statistics substantiate the claim that each denomination within the mainline and of the mainline as a whole have experienced significant declines in membership and that these declines have continued over a period of several decades. It is unreasonable to expect them to shift unless radical change occurs. While extinction is a possible end result many decades into the future, the years ahead are more likely to be characterized by continued declines in membership and in influence. Attempts at denominational reform, while necessary, are incomplete and inadequate.
- Do you think most mainline Christians are aware just how dramatic the declines are in membership and in influence over the last few decades? If not, how might increasing awareness be a helpful step in working toward real solutions?
- If nothing changes, do you think Christianity in the Western world could become extinct in your lifetime? Why or why not?
- What changes do you believe are essential? How are you investing your energies and time to help initiate these? How is your congregation involved in these efforts?