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They are community centers. Apartment buildings and restaurants. Abandoned, decaying shells. Former worshippers used to call them church. The authors of Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society tell us that up to 10,000 churches close each year in the United States.[1] As a bishop I’ve participated in the sad process of closing some of them.

Kasselstrand, Zuckerman, and Cragun offer this example as an illustration of the secularization hypothesis. In short, the thesis is that religion will decline as modern society progresses. People will increasingly rely upon science, the social sciences, and logic to guide their personal and political lives.

To put this another way, rational processes will steadily take the place of adherence to religious dogma for our decision-making. Correlatively, worship and church membership will become increasingly irrelevant to most people.

Whether or not you agree that secularism is destined to make institutional religion an artifact of a bygone age, you might agree with me that we are living in an era of dechurching. Pews are getting emptier and membership rolls thinner.

Compare for instance the religious landscape of the 1950’s to today’s. Seventy years ago, the percentage of people reporting no religious affiliation at all (the Nones) hovered between nobody and 2%. Today the Nones account for anywhere from 20% to 30% of the American population.[2]

To be clear, there’s plenty of spiritual longing and curiosity among the Nones. Only a small percentage of them are atheists. And even a percentage of those atheists believe in a higher power of some kind, just not the Biblical God.[3] But they are not finding the sense of connection, the guidance, and the sustenance they seek within institutional religion.

There are lots of articles and books written about how to turn all of this around and to revitalize our denominations. To get more people to join us on Sunday.

Some champion focusing on good works and relaxing our insistence on doctrines and dogmas. Conversely, others are convinced that only an unwavering commitment to theological clarity and moral rigor will renew the place of the church in society. Then there are those who look for cultural relevance in worship style or music or programming.

Well, maybe. Then again, maybe the denominations that so many of us know and love will fade away. I just don’t know. But what I’m confident about is that the church will persist and prevail. That’s because the church is not an institution. It’s a web of relationships centered on, woven together by, and sustained by the risen Jesus. The church is about connection to Christ and to one another in Christ. And to be a disciple in that church is to have a personal relationship him.

Jesus once said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Let’s unpack that.

First, Jesus invites us into relationship. He initiates a connection. Jesus is not waiting for us to believe in specific things or to behave in certain ways before reaching out. Oh sure, who we are, what we believe, and how we act will change as a result of our relationship with Jesus. But church is a relationship that Jesus initiates and that he never gives up on. Being a disciple in this church is to respond to that invitation.

Second, Jesus really gets us. Life is hard and complex and frequently baffling. We were never meant to go it on our own. We need help and we need guidance. In other words, we need wisdom that is greater than whatever wit and insight we might be able to gather during our own short lives. The big picture is always beyond us. Discipleship involves drawing on the help that we’ve been offered. Self-reliance is a dead-end street.

Finally, Jesus gives us what we cannot give to ourselves. Jesus not only gives us wisdom. He is, as Paul said, the wisdom of God incarnate. (1 Corinthian 1:30) So he gives us himself. In Christ we find union with the divine and the liberating, life-giving guidance that comes with this connection.

He told us, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)

That turn of phrase echoes a passage in Sirach: “Put your neck under her yoke,/ and let your souls receive instruction;/ it is to be found close by. See with your own eyes that I have labored but little/ and found for myself much serenity.” (Sirach 51:26-27)

Wisdom, personified as a woman, knows God intimately, so she can share with us the depths of God’s wisdom. “For she is an initiate in the knowledge of God,/ and an associate in his works.” (Wisdom 8:4)

Wisdom was with God at the beginning of the creation. She understands how things really work. Thus, she can guide us through even our most overwhelming moments and complex circumstances:

“With you is wisdom, she who knows your works/ and was present when you made the world;
she understands what is pleasing in your sight/ and what is right according to your/ commandments.” (Wisdom 9:9)

Jesus gives us rest for our souls. To put it another way, he relieves our restlessness. That sense that we’re looking for something that we can’t quite identify.

You see, we’re looking for the very thing that assures us that our life matters. That something is a someone. The risen Jesus.

Connecting with Jesus is what the church has always been about. And Jesus will always be about connecting with us, no matter what form our institutions may take.

This essay is a reflection on the Gospel of Proper 9A: Matthew 11:16-19, 225-30) for the first Sunday in July. If you’re looking for some thoughts about this week’s lessons (Proper 8A, July 2, 2023) click here. My practice is to post about the lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary one week in advance.

[1] Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman, and Ryan T. Cragun, Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, p. 21.

[2] See Frank Newport, “Slowdown in the Number of Religious Nones”, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/406544/slowdown-rise-religious-nones.aspx; and also Gregory A. Smith, “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated”, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/12/06/10-facts-about-atheists/

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