We are fast on track to becoming a post-Christian country. Recent stats show that only 36% of the youngest among us, Millennials and Gen Z, have any church membership as opposed to Boomers at 58% and those born before 1946 at 66%. There is a generational changing of the guard, and for the first time, less than half the population are members of a church. Only one in three self-identified Christians actually attends church, and between four and seven thousand churches are closing every year.
Mere statistics can’t convey the very human anger, disgust, disillusionment, or apathy that accompanies these numbers, and many church leaders blame “cultural decay” or “changing values” for the decline. But others say those are just symptoms—that the cause is the loss of our first love, our passion for our faith. But why have we lost our passion? Is there a deeper cause for that as well? Viktor Frankl taught that all human life is pointed at meaning. With meaning, life is passionate and alive, because ultimate meaning is love.
By the first century, Judaism had become a legal institution and had lost the ability to guide its people to ultimate meaning in life. Jesus rose up to revive it by breaking through institutional walls and back to meaning. By the fourth century the Church had become a state religion that simply demanded conformity to its own orthodoxy. The Desert Fathers and Mothers rose to revive it by creating their own communities pointed at meaning. By the twelfth century the church was the most powerful political force in the West, but Francis of Assisi rose to quietly start a revival, a movement that exposed the meaninglessness of the church’s power and gave meaning to the Reformation to come.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, the church has now been institutionalized for centuries, again demanding its own orthodoxy rather than guiding people to meaning. In the panic of seeing Christianity fade, there are many calls for revival, but most often they are calls to double down and shore up the traditional institution. The youngest among us have already declared with their feet that such institutions don’t answer their deepest questions of meaning.
A real revival, one that can revive a fading church, is one that goes all the way back to Jesus or at least Francis, freeing people to find their way to meaning, to love, in all their circumstances. Only such people can create a church that inspires the passion of the search for ultimate meaning.