Church Death and Church Evolution

David Hayward's cartoon above is accompanied by a comment acknowledging that the church itself may never die, but churches die all the time. The reason some religious believers sometimes manage to persuade themselves otherwise is much the same reason some manage to persuade themselves that evolution does not occur. When change occurs over generations, it is easy for the people of one generation to convince themselves that it is not happening at all. But such beliefs do not change the reality.

The mere effort to preserve attendance and keep a congregation from ceasing to be is almost sure to fail in the long run, and may in fact contribute to its demise. It is perhaps worth noting that the New Testament writings nowhere depict anyone trying to avoid driving people from a Christian group, or being concerned about the number of members. Today, many clergy avoiding mentioning things they learned in seminary, or their views on evolution, out of a concern not to alienate members with a fundamentalist mentality. But in pandering to the dead in this way, they often succeed in alienating and driving away the living.

But part of the message of David's post is that that is OK. One could even talk about it in terms of natural selection. The churches that let immature bullies predominate may seem to cling to more members in the short term, as their authoritarianism maintains attendance. But they often die spectacularly as a result of scandal or split. And that is OK, it is healthy, it is normal. Because evolution happens on the level of species and not individual organisms. Churches die as part of the process in which the Church survives, by changing, growing, and adapting to new environments. Those least prepared to cope in a changing environment die, and even if only a few churches survive, they pass their well-adapted traits on to those that follow after them. Evolution at work.

For those of us who can step back and see this big picture, there is a sweet and pleasant irony to seeing that the churches which contribute to widespread church death through their intransigence, their anti-intellectualism, their depiction of Christianity and evolution as incompatible, are ensuring that it will be the “genes” of a healthier sort of Christianity, a more classic approach, that will be the one to survive into the future, precisely through its evolution.

Just as has always been the case.


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