As we watch the news coming out of the Vatican, and the anointment of a major religious leader, we return to the question of why so many churches are in decline — and who could successfully lead their 21st-century resurgence. Are the young falling away because they can’t relate to leaders from prior generations? Could more flexible leaders convince those who are leaving to come back? Should we blame out-of-date beliefs that leave clergy with flimsy answers to today’s questions?
Flexibility is not the problem. Many churches have bent over backwards to be flexible. They have gone so far as to remodel their churches as figurative cafeterias, where the menus list beliefs and practices rather than soups or sandwiches. You can put “honesty” on your tray, some Sabbath-light church attendance (only Christmas and Easter), the package of promiscuous sex before marriage and fidelity afterwards, and so on. When you get to the end of the line, just show the clerk what’s on your tray and ask, “Can you guide me to a church that will allow me to believe want I want to believe, and do what I want to do?”
Yet the reality is, people don’t need churches for such options. Society provides all of these, and more. Flexibility has actually accelerated churches’ decline, because they now stand for less and less.
However, while measures of attendance and religiosity are in retreat, the desire for spiritual guidance isn’t. Just ask someone, “Do you have questions about religion that you haven’t been able to get answers to?” You’ll find almost everybody has fundamental questions that nobody seems able to answer. By this measure, the market for religion is booming. The prophet Amos saw that there would be this “famine,” impelling people who have important questions to “run to and fro to seek the word of God, and shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)
Why are so many churches unable to address these questions? The answer, I think, is rooted in the early leadership of the Christian Church.
There is a principle that even God adheres to — people will learn when they are ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. The scriptural pattern is that the Lord typically withholds answers until someone asks the salient questions. Yet from the early centuries of Christianity onwards, church leaders unilaterally decided that they had received from God all of the answers. This conclusion, then, obviated the need to ask questions and, in response, God was unable to continue to reveal new answers. In a real sense, these church leaders turned out the lights throughout the known world, plunging it into the Dark Ages. And for more than a thousand years, it truly was dark. God was not seen or heard.
Glimpses of light appeared when leaders such as William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Roger Williams and Joseph Smith began to ask questions of God again. Answers that had not been known before, or had been forgotten, were consequently restored to the Earth. However, there seems to be a propensity among the most devoted members and leaders of churches, old and new, to conclude in their smugness that they have all of the answers. And just as the early Fathers did, when they do this today, they turn off the lights on those who still have questions.
As one who believes that God and Satan are both alive and that they battle over the eternal lives of God’s children, I can think of no better news that Satan might receive from the front lines of this war than when the leaders and members of yet another church conclude that they have all the answers — avoiding questions, stopping revelation from heaven, and rendering them unable to satisfy cogently the yearnings of thoughtful people around the world.
My simple hope is that when we pick the leaders who will guide us in our churches, that we chose leaders who truly believe not just in all that God historically revealed to mankind but in a God who stands ready to reveal many additional truths and answers to the questions that so many of his children are asking today.
Clayton Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The statements in this article are his own, and do not reflect those of his employer or his church.
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