This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon21 #BringThePeace series.
There’s an elephant in our sanctuaries. And while this elephant is also in the sanctuaries of most denominations, we can’t keep pointing our fingers at everyone else. We have to look straight at our own beast. The elephant? People aren’t coming to Sunday morning worship services like they used to.
“Oh, yes they are,” you may say. And of course, it’s true that some are, but the elephant says, “Yes, but not as many as 10 years ago, or even five years ago.”
“Yes, but it’s COVID-19. Once the pandemic is over, people will be back.” The elephant was sitting on the front pew long before COVID-19.
We can come up with other excuses: People who are busy, and families are more mobile, and this leads to church shopping. The list goes on and on. But research shows that the Nones are growing in number. Nones refer to Americans who don’t identify with any religion. When asked to identify their religion, they reply, “None.” Hence the name. Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life reports that “The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.”
But you might say, “None of my fellow congregants are Nones.” “Okay,” says the elephant, “but church membership and attendance are both down.”
People aren’t coming to church like they used to.
Wait. Coming to church? Is it possible to come to a body of committed believers? Is church a wooden or stone structure or a sacred time slot on Sunday morning — or something else?
The Bible says that we are the church. We get the word church from the Greek word ecclesia, a word that brings up images of a town hall meeting. The emphasis is on a group of people, not necessarily a building. 1 Corinthians 3:16 calls the Corinthian believers (the you here is plural) God’s Temple, which, for some, might have been a bit scandalous, since the marble temple in Jerusalem was still standing. But the point was clear: A local group of believers, together, makes up the church.
Hesston College’s Center for Anabaptist Leadership and Learning, the CALL program, is working on training leaders for two elephant-sized tasks. One is to help their student leaders rediscover the biblical meaning of church and ministry. The second task is to help these student leaders use strategies to nurture an environment where their congregants can experience this same conversion.
And it feels like a down-home, revival style conversion. To see church and ministry differently brings renewal. To see your vocation, no matter what job you do, as being a follower of Jesus, who just happens to fix cars to put food on the table, gives you a renewed purpose for getting up in the morning. Rediscovering a biblical meaning for church is like riding a roller-coaster backwards. Scary, but a lot of fun.
Scary, fun, life-changing.
On some level, there is no formula. Good old fashioned prayer, soul-searching and giving up the idol of “we’ve always done it this way” or “remember the golden years” are not so much strategies but spiritual disciplines. On the other hand, there are specific shifts — one-degree changes — that nurture this new/old reality. These are the things we’ll be discussing in my seminar, Church is not a building (and your pastor’s not the only minister), at MennoCon21.
The elephant is not to be feared. Jesus has chosen to heal the world through the church, and the Holy Spirit has promised to give us whatever we need. And the Nones saying they have no religious identity and church membership being down doesn’t equate a lack of desire for a relationship with God. The Spirit is already at work. Two-thirds of the Nones say they believe in God. One in five say they pray every day, and more than a third say they’re spiritual, even though they’re not religious.
When we rediscover the biblical church and when we recommit ourselves to lives of ministry, maybe the elephant disappears. Or … maybe it doesn’t matter anymore.
 “Losing Our Religion: The Growth Of The ‘Nones’,” https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/01/14/169164840/losing-our-religion-the-growth-of-the-nones.
 “Nones on the Rise,” https://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/#growth.
 “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.