In my role as the Discernment Doctor, I try to focus like a hawk on issues affecting clergy career development. But as our careers are developing (or coming to a conclusion) in an institution that is struggling now, I occasionally feel the need to look at the big picture. Discerning our own futures is interwoven with discerning the future of the church we love and serve.
I have just started reading Jill Lepore’s new book, The Mansion of Happiness, A History of Life and Death. If you like non-fiction, I strongly recommend that you add this to your summer reading list. It will get my vote for a future reading for my church book club.
The book title and introduction explore American perceptions of the meaning of life as expressed in Milton Bradley’s phenomenally successful board game, Life. The first version of the game was developed by the original Milton Bradley on the eve of the Civil War. That game, played on a checkerboard, was a mixture of morality and materialism. When Milton Bradley, the company, reissued Life in 1960, the game was all materialism. He who retires with the most money wins.
Lepore made a sociological observation about how changing demographics impacts our view of history and of questions about the meaning of life. Around 1800, the average American family had seven children and the average American lifespan was around forty years. In 2010 the average American family has less than two children and the average lifespan approached eighty years.
In response to this dramatic demographic change, Lepore notes that our understanding of life has straightened out. Where we once observed life as circular, life is now experienced as linear. Lepore writes:
“In 1800, the fertility rate in the United States was over seven births per woman, the average age of the population was sixteen, and the life expectancy was under forty. By 2010, the fertility rate had fallen to barely two, the average age of the population had risen to thirty-seven, and the average American could expect to live to nearly eighty….
When life lengthened, all those circles became lines…Meanwhile, the contemplation of life and death moved from the humanities to the sciences,…
When thinking about life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, the light of history dimmed. The future trumped the past. Youth vanquished age, and death grew unthinkable”.
Could Lepore’s observation about the dimming of the light of history be made about a dimming of the light of Christ? I wonder how much the “straightening out of life” accounts for the shrinking popularity of the church and of the Christian message in America. Churches across the theological spectrum are shrinking. Yes a few megachurches are growing, but on average, religious affiliation is declining, while polls show “no religion” is increasing. Even here at Old North, our Sunday attendance dipped a bit last year after several years of steady, if small growth.
Certainly, decreasing family size accounts for some of the decline as the church’s primary form of evangelism is to baptize children of current members. The church flourished during the 1950s as post World War Two families gave birth to a baby boom (including me) and launched new suburbs with new churches. Once the baby boom subsided, so did church growth.
I wonder whether long term demographic changes have had a subtler and deeper impact on how our faith is received. As life lengthens, do individuals confront the same core theological questions our ancestors did? Birth and death are experienced less frequently in our modern lives than they were two hundred years ago. Moreover, birth and death tend to be isolated from society. They occur in hospitals and nursing homes, not at home. Are we then less likely to ask questions about what happens after death? Do we postpone asking those questions until our own deaths feel relatively close?
Does the church proclaim the Christian faith in a way that is more attuned to larger families and shorter life spans? Is John 3:16 (to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.) still the most important summary of the Gospel? Is the primary role of clergy to be pastors to help families through life transitions of birth, illness, and death? Do we view sin primarily as an obstacle to eternal life, or as an affront to our fellow human beings? Is the eucharist a sacrifice to bring us closer to eternal life, or a shared meal to bring us closer to each other? I am not suggesting that we stop believing in eternal life, stop pastoring each other through life challenges, stop repenting our sins, or stop celebrating the eucharist. Perhaps we need to rethink what each of these theologies and activities mean in the context of lengthened lives.
Different Christian themes have been emphasized in different Christian eras. These themes are all found in our large and ancient tradition, but they vary in importance from era to era depending on the existential, economic, and political issues faced by the living communities of faith at the time. What themes are we currently de-emphasizing, and more importantly, what ancient Christian themes can help us address the spiritual challenges of the twenty-first century?
Might we understand recent church battles over sexual identity and family structure as attempts to adjust the church’s theology and practice to changing demographics and to lives less focused on birth and death? The difference in responses to these issues by the Western church versus the church in the developing world may be a reflection of differing demographic realities between developed and developing worlds.
What are the spiritual questions that seem most pressing in your longer and healthier life? What stories from our ancient tradition will help you understand the purpose of life as we now live it? As The Mansion of Happiness, A History of Life and Death points out, our core values are changing in response to changing demographic, technological, economic, and social change. Where do we find God in that change? How can our history help us understand the future to which God is calling us and calling our church?