From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

We have all read the worrisome statistics about the losses of members in our churches. This decline has had a direct impact on divinity schools as well.

Nationally, applications to institutions accredited by the Association of Theological Schools have dropped 1.5 percent per annum since 2004. Dan Aleshire, the executive director of ATS, estimates that 20 percent of ATS-accredited schools could not survive financially if they sold all of their assets and had to live on them for a year. Seminaries and churches are both struggling.

There are, however, churches (and divinity schools) that are flourishing, including those that have experienced renewal by defying conventional wisdom about what it takes to grow and thrive. We asked some of the people who lead these growing churches to reflect on the factors that have contributed to the health of their congregations. This Fall issue of Reflections is a collection of their responses. I would like to add to their voices by reminding us of three basic principles – principles that surface repeatedly in the following essays.

Christianity is fundamentally not an institution but a relationship. The good news in the New Testament is not about the church; it is about what God has done for humanity in Jesus Christ. One of the great challenges we face today is that many in our society – especially among those who are 18-29 – do not trust institutions. It is not hard to understand why. They have witnessed the scandals of the established church and the near-collapse of Wall Street. We need to return to our roots in the New Testament and let people know that we do not proclaim an institution but a savior. People have not lost their need or appetite for spirituality; they have lost their confidence in institutions.

Related to this is the need to take the biblical text seriously while recognizing its ancient character. A failure to take it seriously will reduce a homily to a group therapy session or a political commentary. A failure to recognize its ancient character leads to a naiveté that will erode the credibility of our explanations. We can neither replace Scripture nor reify it. We must proclaim it with the realization that it is part of the mystery of the human-divine encounter. If we remove the mystery of that encounter, we take the power out of Christianity.

Finally, many of the essays point to a fundamental truth about Christianity: We are called to serve people. We may need to learn how to connect with people via new media, but the fundamental truth is that no matter how the connections are made, people need to come first. The world does not care about our doctrines; it cares about the way we treat human beings. This is a standard comment by those who have no religious affiliation: Churches seem to care more about what to believe than about the welfare of human beings.

Ancient Christians understood this. I will never forget the first time that I read the apology of the 2nd-century Christian Aristides. Aristides opened his little treatise with a brief philosophical discussion of God and then asked who understood God. He considered and set aside the Chaldeans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Jews. He then came to Christians. I expected Aristides to provide a Middle Platonic or Peripatetic description of God and attribute it to Christians. Instead, Aristides said that Christians demonstrate that they understand God by the way they live: They practice love and care for others. Ultimately, I think he was correct. The value of our religion is determined by the way we treat other people. The strongest witness to Christianity is a life lived in faith and love.