Church Disintegration

As I Was Saying

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The last time information technology took a big leap forward, the Protestant Reformation resulted. The printing press allowed books and pamphlets to be produced and shared beyond academics to the masses. More books meant more opportunity for literacy. Common people could read the Bible for themselves, no longer depending on their priest’s word for it. Martin Luther’s much-needed reforming ideas spread, but sadly the church fragmented into various Protestant groups.

In the past 30 years, with the advent of the internet and smartphones, we now have a universe of information in the palm of our hands. Ideas can be shared instantly to anywhere in the world. Sharing information is more efficient than ever, but sadly the church is again fragmenting at a whole new level.

Technology Changes Us

The new technology has greatly changed our daily routines, how we work, play, and relate to one another. Being connected digitally, the institutions of fellowship seem less needed. Even the expectations of in-person relationships begin to change. Years ago, people depended on neighbors and communities for security and help in trouble. They put up with the irritating neighbor because he would be there if their barn burned down and she would be ready to lend them a cup of sugar. Every barn-raising and cup of sugar grew trust and solidarity. Today we don’t need to exercise patience with irritating neighbors. We unfriend them on Facebook. We have fire insurance. We can make a special trip to the store for sugar or pre-made cookies. Technology has a way of not only changing our routines but also our thinking. On our personal devices, in control of our personal settings tailored to our personal preferences, our own wants and ease are more often guiding our choices. Difficult times once motivated us to rely on one another. As our difficulties have become fewer and our screen time has multiplied, we have become individualistic.

Individualism Goes to Church

One by one, denominations that once showed consistent growth are now declining. Still growing are the unattached nondenominational churches. Gallup found that adults identifying with a specific denomination declined from 50% in 2000 to only 30% in 2017. If a more generic Christianity sounds like a positive development, the rapid erosion of basic Christian beliefs suggests we are not only losing our denominational brand loyalty but our roots altogether. Overall trends show smaller churches are getting smaller while the "big box" independent churches are getting larger. With a WalMart ecclesiology, the megachurches can offer something for everyone at the lowest cost of personal commitment. At the other end of the spectrum are microchurches, where a handful of families meet in a home and rotate leading Bible study. Whether by megachurches or microchurches, the greater church is fragmenting. Easy access to information makes knowledge cheap. With a universe of information at the touch of a screen comes the illusion of expertise in any topic of interest. (Who needs seminary when you have Google?) Throwing off the fetters of institutions, dynamic personalities lead the way. Christians are increasingly led by celebrity preachers and writers instead of institutions that have stood the test of time. When everyone has access to the information, those with the best sales pitch accumulate listeners. Criteria for sermons is no longer faithfulness to the faith of old but captivating rhetoric, storytelling, and application to the individual’s personal life. Church shopping lists no longer prioritize doctrine rooted in the historic church. Top of the list are personal items: good programs for the kids, emotionally stirring worship, and friendliness. (Why patiently bear with any unpleasantness because of centuries-old beliefs?)

Before I sound like Grandpa lamenting the loss of the good ol’ days, these new technologies have benefited our lives in many ways, especially during lockdowns. Talking face to face with loved ones has been invaluable in 2020. Nevertheless, we can expect the church to adopt models that fragment believers into isolated units. We cannot fight the future, but we can pass down key values to the generations inheriting a disintegrating church.

Values to Pass On

We need to read the Bible. Unprecedented access to the Bible via apps and Bible Gateway has only coincided with decreased biblical belief. When we don’t know the whole of Scripture, we are easily taken by any charlatan quoting verses to suit an agenda. Being in God’s Word is a developed habit that needs cultivation and practice. This is one habit with eternal rewards.

We need to read the Bible with the historical church. The Protestant Reformers did not throw away the ancient creeds or early theologians. The hard-learned lessons of past believers are worth repeating. Creeds and confessions are not ancient history but roots into the great body of Christ that transcends time.

We all need accountability. Celebrity preachers and teachers are notorious for moral failure. They seem more than human and even beyond reproach. Their fall can collapse their entire church. Meanwhile, a certain microchurch in my area now worships on Saturdays and stopped eating pork. Safeguards must be in place to hold one another to true doctrine and Christian conduct.

We need to rediscover the virtues of commitment and perseverance. Church once taught us to bear with one another and forgive offenses. Somehow we need to learn patience and perseverance with difficult people who are saved by grace just as we are. It reminds us that what we have in Christ is more important than the petty differences of this world. We cannot unfriend in heaven, so we best learn to be together on earth.

Christ’s church will never disappear, but over the centuries it has been modified. We can expect the church to adapt again, but we can share the importance of values that the future could easily forget.

About the Author

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

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