When in-person worship resumed last year, congregations across America saw significant decreases in their pre-pandemic attendance rates. It’s true that some congregations have grown over the last two years, but the more common story is one of decline—in some places, 40% or more.
There are multiple reasons for this: some people are still concerned about safety as the pandemic continues, some prefer online worship even when in-person is offered, and others have simply walked away. No one is sure how things will settle, but I suspect the pandemic has accelerated a deeper cultural shift that was already long underway.
To understand this shift, we need to examine history. After the American Revolution, a new paradigm for institutional life emerged and came to dominate American religion and society—the voluntary association. Whereas congregations prior to that time carried over the state church model from Europe (with some important variations), the disestablishment of religion spurred innovation.
Congregations began to organize themselves as voluntary societies, which individuals could choose to join and support with donations. Ted A. Smith, a professor at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, says this new “Age of Association” also brought countless service clubs and other ways of organizing, joining, participating and serving. Many denominations emerged during this era. While institutions in the Age of Association were often problematically exclusive, they unleashed a lot of dynamism and vitality in American religion and life.
In this Age of Authenticity, identity springs less from a web of institutions (family, neighborhood, career, etc.) than from a series of individual choices.
Since the late 1960s, Western societies have increasingly come to inhabit what the philosopher Charles Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity, when people focus on discovering and expressing their true selves, not affiliating with or serving institutions. In fact, institutions are regarded with deep suspicion.
In the Age of Authenticity, people can leave voluntary associations and institutions without embedding themselves elsewhere. Things are far more fluid, and identity springs less from a web of institutions (family, neighborhood, career, etc.) than from a series of individual choices. Social and economic burdens once borne by institutions (like defined benefit pension plans) are shifted to individuals.
The systems of the ELCA (congregations, synods, the churchwide organization) and its partners were designed for the Age of Association, not the Age of Authenticity. No one should be surprised that they are unraveling as church membership declines. If you talk to leaders of other voluntary association systems—scouting, labor unions, service organizations―you’ll hear the same story. This isn’t just the church’s problem—it’s a larger cultural transformation.
Think outside the box
This causes enormous loss and grief, particularly in older generations for whom the Age of Association model worked well. Many congregations are being sustained by faithful elders who know how to build, serve and sustain voluntary associations. They puzzle at why their children and grandchildren aren’t interested in affiliating and participating.
Pastors and other leaders are expected to manage and revitalize the Age of Association institutions, typically with fewer resources. No wonder that 51% of mainline Protestant clergy have considered leaving full-time ministry in the past year, according to a recent study by the Barna Group. Getting younger people to affiliate with and participate in (let alone sacrificially support) voluntary associations in the Age of Authenticity is a difficult proposition.
Instead, the church should embrace the huge opportunity the Age of Authenticity provides to share the gospel in a culture where people are told to go their own way and find their own meaning, purpose and community. This age is full of yearning for deeper connections than those facilitated by social media, for more adequate stories than those provided by consumerism, and for more just and sustainable ways of patterning human life than people see around and within themselves. There is isolation, despair and division. What an opportune moment for the promises of God in Jesus to be made known!
The church should embrace the huge opportunity the Age of Authenticity provides to share the gospel in a culture where people are told to go their own way and find their own meaning, purpose and community.
If the church is going to make those promises known in the Age of Authenticity, it may need to think outside the old boxes of the Age of Association. The core practices of Christian faith and community must endure, but their organizational expression will need to change. We don’t yet know what this will look like. It will require a lot of experimentation—what I and my colleagues at Luther Seminary call faithful innovation.
This involves investing presence and relationship in community spaces where people already spend time (both virtually and physically) so that we might listen to their stories and learn how to connect the gospel with their longings and losses. It involves learning how to embody the richness of Christian spirituality in simple, accessible practices that people can see in ordinary lives and try on for themselves.
In the Age of Authenticity, people are looking for authentic expressions of spirituality, community, justice and hope. That is a good thing. May the church meet them there with the good news of Jesus.