It’s going to be a tough time for a couple of dozen people in western Oglethorpe County, where three tiny Methodist churches have existed for over a hundred years. All three churches will have final worship services in May and close officially by vote of the North Georgia Annual Conference of Methodists in June.
One church’s deed is dated 1886, the other two 1908 and 1915, and the congregations are older. Family members who were born and died in those congregations are buried in the church cemeteries. A little ancestor worship, no matter how innocent, hinders the burial of dead institutions like those three small churches.
I’ve seen ideas—many of them mine—implemented and then dismantled a few deans later, seen academic and retail fads come and go, watched language change as words are discontinued and entire cultures decline as members died, leaving no-one to continue the traditions, and preached funerals in a half-dozen states. I’ve watched clothing fashions disappear in a single season, watched brilliant new innovations fall flat, and have seen people die for their causes.
There is the ensuing feeling of abandonment by a mysterious power by which all of these cultures with their ideas, programs, projects, and innovations had lived.
There is the stare in the face of tomorrow and the twin questions of, “Why now?” and “What next?”
Demographics tell the members of these three churches why now, but nothing and no one can claim to know the “what next?” of their lives.
The church buildings will be abandoned like so many small-town malls, like the faith of many people in the face of despair—or just a day’s life. A church closing is a reminder of the declining reliance on the institution of divine worship, whatever practice; a post-religion society.
We in this country are not alone in this declination of faith. The world is in a post-religion stage, characterized by a distrust of religious institutions of all stripes, duplicitous ecclesiastic leaders, failing practices, and the inability to prevent war, or even to make people’s lives better by more than a modest amount. Or, in the case of the three churches in western Oglethorpe, simply a failure to thrive.
Into this void rides religious fundamentalism. The term represents an unholy certitude of the existence of God, Yahweh, or Allah, as revealed in the holy scriptures of those religions. The ontology of this certitude, born knowing neither the “Why now?” nor the “What next?” of human existence, drives some humans to texts they consider holy for all answers and, more importantly, how to ensure the supremacy of their own text over all others.
That attitude might be innocuous were it not for the failure of certitude to answer life’s questions adequately. Certitude requires no faith; a life without faith leads to disappointment because certitude fails.
The Christian church, in its certitude about doctrine, has failed to live by faith. Result? A rejection of the church, its doctrines, and definitely its false certainty about life by those who fail to grasp the uncertainty and ambiguity of human life and spirituality.
The “Why now?” answer in this post-religion stage is that Christians, Jews, and Muslims no longer trust their centuries-old institutions and beliefs because paradise—by whatever name each religion knows it—has not arrived. Worship has not rid us of fear, loss, disappointment, or grief—and the world has not gotten better. Our members have died, moved away, or dropped out during the wait, and we, too, are tired of waiting.
The answer to “What next?” is found in the realization that there is no single, discoverable truth with a capital T, but only individual truths, however shaken. For some members of those churches, both the now and the next are encroaching sensations that nothing can replace their fellowships, friendships, families, or facades of their places of worship, almost as though God lives only there for them, that God will be left behind and will not be found in new congregations. Their Certitude idol has failed them.
But somewhere within, their faith will re-emerge. They will experience God everywhere they are, and just as Christ rose from the grave, so too will they rise from the graveyards of abandoned buildings to glorify God in other places and other ways.
Why now? Because certitude is a lie. What next? Perhaps Their faith will make them whole.
Rev. Dr. David H. Roberts resides in Athens, GA, and serves as a pastor in the Crawford Circuit of the Athens-Elberton District, North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.