As Americans we are living in a time of increasing emotional despair. And this crisis presents the Body of Christ with tremendous challenges as local churches consider how they might respond.
In the past, when I heard people complain about the state of American society and the level of social upheaval, I would respond, “But it’s not as bad as it was back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Well I no longer say that. I think the state of American society, in 2023, is now worse. I have never, in my lifetime, seen as many studies and statistics pointing to widespread depression and despair as I have read about in just the last two years. Some examples:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been conducting major surveys of high school students every other year since 2011. The most recent survey—conducted in 2021 with the findings released in 2022—discovered an “overwhelming wave of violence and trauma and never-before-seen levels of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts among high schools students in the United States.” This trend has been particularly alarming among high school girls. “Almost 60% of female students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year, and nearly 25% made a suicide plan.” This represents a 60% increase when compared to the survey results back in 2011.
- Nicholas Kristoff, a writer with the New York Times, recently wrote, “Americans die from deaths of despair—drugs, alcohol and suicide—at a rate of more than 250,000 people per year, and the number of walking wounded is far greater.”
- Suicide-related visits to pediatric emergency rooms in the United States—between 2011 and 2020—increased 500% (five-fold) among children, teens and young adults. (New York Times, 5-1-2023)
Back in 1920 the poet William Butler Yeats wrote his poem, The Second Coming. His appraisal of the world of his day, no doubt shared by many of his peers shortly after the conclusion of the First World War, was incredibly stark. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Call me an alarmist, but I believe these words capture how a great many Americans—on both sides of the (political) aisle—view the current state of American society.
There are undoubtedly many factors contributing to these startling statistics. Perhaps the most frequent cause cited is the increased use of social media; especially among young people in general, and young women and girls in particular. There is also the on-going decline in the number of two-parent households; increased rates of addiction; and the increasing numbers of Americans living alone. And I would add the increasing secularization of our society and culture.
So what can the local church do to respond to all this despair? In my opinion congregations can potentially make a significant and positive difference. How? By reaching out to some of the “walking wounded” in their local communities and introducing them to the blessings of being part of a caring Christian fellowship. And, this introduction will typically happen one caring relationship at a time.
However, there are at least two challenges faced by a great many local churches which need to be addressed. One challenge is that too many congregations are just as polarized and conflicted as our surrounding culture. We must not allow our churches to be characterized by discord and disunity. It is incredibly difficult to witness to the love of Christ if this love is not evident within our congregations due to internal conflict.
A second challenge is that too many of our congregations have become immobilized by and fixated on their institutional decline. This might be apparent due to decreasing worship attendance, or reduced financial giving, or perhaps their inability to find a new pastor during a prolonged vacancy.
Granted, our society is becoming increasingly secular, and the percentage of Americans identifying as “religious” has been decreasing. However, more and more Americans—in their despair—are recognizing their need to be a part of a loving and supportive community. And they understand that this “community” needs to be in-person, not online.
Jessica Grose, a columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote an article entitled, “What Churches Offer That ‘Nones’ Still Long For”. This article just appeared in the paper’s 6-28-2023 issue. Keep in mind that Ms. Grose is a “none” of a non-observant Jewish background. This was her final article in a five-article series on the increasing number of Americans leaving organized religion. She wrote, “The one aspect of religion in America that I unquestionably see as an overall positive for society is the ready-made supportive community that churchgoers can access.” One of the de-churched “nones” whom Jessica interviewed for her articles said the following: “I was raised Pentecostal and went to church three or more times a week, so I desperately miss the community. It was where my friendships came from. I have very few friends now.” I would dare to say that hundreds of thousands of dechurched Lutherans probably have similar stories. At the end of this article Ms. Grose wrote, “Almost everyone needs community to flourish.” On a personal note, my wife and I, as we returned to more regular in-person worship attendance after the pandemic, realized how profoundly we had missed the worship and fellowship of our home congregation.
Writer Kirsten Sanders, in the recent March/2023 issue of Christianity Today, did an excellent job of describing the kind of Christian community which could reach the “walking wounded” of 2023. “What makes the church (unique) is its knowledge of itself as called by God to be his representative on the earth, to be marked by unwieldy and inconvenient practices like forgiveness, hospitality, humility, and repentance. It is marked in such a way by its common gathering, in baptism and Communion, remembering the Lord’s death and proclaiming it until he comes…When the church becomes preoccupied with defending itself to the world, it eventually becomes incoherent. The only way to be a church is to speak the peculiar language of peace, of forgiveness, of repentance and resurrection.”
One of my favorite New Testament passages that I believe presents a vision of God’s love and Christian community is Ephesians 3:16-19. Paul writes, “I pray that out of (the Father’s) glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Congregations in Transition /Congregational Lay-leadership Initiative