From the Pastor (04.01.21)

While the involvement of conservative churches and prominent pastors in politics has been grabbing the headlines over the past few years, the most important religion story has been the dramatic decline in church membership and participation. The other way of stating that fact is that, as you’ve probably heard before, the fastest growing “religious” group in the United States is the “nones,” those who espouse no religion whatsoever.

In a recent article in Religion News Service, Ryan Burge, who is both a small church pastor and a social scientist, noted the following sobering figures:

In 1972, approximately 1 in 20 Americans said that they were associated with no religion. That figure climbed just 2 percent in the next twenty years. Since then the rise in this group has been nothing short of astounding. In 1996, it was about 12%; by 2006, it was 16%. The latest data was collected in 2018. It showed that almost 24% of Americans had no religious affiliation. That’s an increase of 50% in just 12 years!

The unknown factor that has all who are involved in dealing with religious institutions concerned is what additional effect the pandemic will have on this decline. I’m thinking that anyone who purports to know the answer to that question is delusional.

Fortunately (for me), I’m not required to make any predictions about the future of the Church. I am, however, charged with continuing to build up the family of faith at Parkway. And even in that limited framework, I cannot make any definitive statements. There are too many questions like these:

How many of you have found it both comfortable and fulfilling to “consume” worship through use of our virtual service or some other online experience?

Who has “slipped through the cracks”? Perhaps your connection with others was already tenuous and you don’t know if you have the emotional energy to reconnect.

Who has left us? We are aware of the ones who have died or moved. I know of a couple of people who have decided to attend elsewhere. We could probably come closer to answering this question than the others, but I don’t think the real impact of these losses will hit us until we’re all back together. 

Every pastor is asking these questions, though some of them seem reluctant to voice their concerns out loud. I may be willing to address the issue because, in our situation, I do see signs of encouragement.

I am incredibly encouraged by your willingness to participate in worship in unique ways. Even on the Sundays when the weather has been marginal, many of you have felt that being present with one another was important enough to cause you to brave the elements in order to attend worship in the parking lot. (I always need to add at this point that there are definitely some of you who, for health reasons, should not choose this option.) When I have been in contact with those of you whom I haven’t seen in person, almost every one of you has indicated that you are using the virtual material. We have even had a few people who do not live in our area become faithful “attenders” by using this material. Despite challenging conditions, our participation in worship has remained strong.

You have also been very generous, both in your financial support of the church, but also in your giving to missions. Norcross Cooperative Ministries, Duluth Middle School, and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have especially benefited from your generosity.

With these encouraging signs in mind, my prayer is not that we will return to “normal.” To return to normal would mean a continuing decline in membership and participation. I believe all of us should strive to do all we can to stem the tide and reverse the trend. 

We won’t do that by returning to “normal.” We will have to demonstrate to our community even more strongly that we truly care about them, not as potential members but as human beings created in the image of God. We must show that we are relevant to their needs, not by catering to what they think they need, but by showing them that the deepest needs of life are answered through faith. We will have to be willing to adapt to a changing world and address real world problems if others are to have any interest in helping us solve them.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, the one thing I know for sure is that if there is a group of people that is willing to commit fully to loving the world in the name of Christ and supporting the church to which they belong, it is the people of Parkway. I believe we will come through this pandemic stronger and more unified. That gives me hope for our future.