When good church folk try and figure out why our churches are shrinking and getting older, we usually blame society. The bad people, the bad influences, the sinful nature of things… these are why we’re in decline.
I don’t think so.
I think we’re shrinking and aging because we’re holding on to a worldview whose shelf-life has expired.
It has to do with physics. Society constantly updates our basic understanding of the basic nature of things, and when we do, there is a corresponding update of how we live our lives; organize society, do economics, politics… and religion.
Back in the Middle Ages, our universe was a deeply mysterious place. Lightning struck but we didn’t understand electricity. Wives died in childbirth but we didn’t understand circulation. Crops failed but we didn’t understand microbes. Strange and powerful forces we didn’t understand ruled our lives. Consequently, our understanding of the basic nature of things was this: the universe is beyond us; more powerful than us; beyond our understanding.
So we built our worlds accordingly. We looked for champions to guard and guide us in this frightening, mysterious universe…
- tea leaves to guide us through the mysteries of every-day life
- black cats, broken mirrors to help us avoid bad luck
- rituals with spilled salt to protect us
- divinely-appointed kings to figure out government for us
- divinely-appointed feudal lords to figure out economies for us
- and divinely-appointed, paternalistic church leaders to run our religion
The Church of the Middle Ages adapted to this worldview, and promised to be our guardians and protectors in the area of religion.
- they mediated between us and God, and made sure we got to heaven
- they said prayers for our souls
- read the Bible for us, told us what it said, what we should believe, and how to act
- they stood up for us against the wild world
The Church in those days was our champion, advocate, and parent. It was all a bit paternalistic and authoritarian, but it was also very protective and sheltering. It worked well for about 1000 years. It makes sense in an unknowable, powerful, mysterious world to have a powerful, parental, advocate-Church.
But around AD 1500, physics changed, and our universe along with it.
And boy, what was a time of upheaval and tumult that was!
…the same kind of upheaval and tumult were going through these days.
…the same kind of church decline we’re going through these days.
We can learn a lot about navigating these historical moments of upheaval by looking back and seeing how our ancestors did it. (next time)