There is much moping about the downward trends of church populations these days. Membership is down. Church attendance is down. Giving is largely down.
Once in a while, some fundamentalist or charismatic association will brag about their carefully tended (and sometimes massaged) attendance figures. And certainly, the mega-churches (sic) brandish their stadium seating during their spectacles -- all televised and web-casted.
But, truth be told, these climbing figures are due in large part to "lateral shifts" of affiliation from one Christian association to another.
The population shift from the truly "un-churched" to the "churched" affiliation is not happening.
Rather, it is going very much the other way. In fact, the largest denomination today is the "unchurched."
You can try out, as a thought experiment, various other lables for this category. Try switching out "unchurched" with the term "spiritual but not religious."
Fr Andrew Damick posted a nice essay last August about this very category, which he has designated as "SBNR."
He suggests, in this essay, that a person who is "spiritual-but-not-religious" (designated as "SBNR") rejects community and hierarchy because he has probably experience some bad people in religion (he has labeled this proposition under the heading of "abuse," interestingly).
Surely, there is much anecdotal evidence about bad people in religion littering the media these days. And I wonder if we wring our hands about SBNR's if only because we detect our own fatigue, if not despondency, about having witnessed too much of these hieratic misbehaviors.
I suggest that we step back a little from the term "abuse" and generalize Fr Damick's point. What is more frequent than outright "abuse" or "bad people" is the existential fact that koinonia (and its concomitant kenosis) always requires suffering, as the ego usually protests against its bearing such a Cross.
Sure there is joy to be experienced, but it comes later -- in the "morning," to be exact, after the "sowing with weeping."
Interestingly enough, here we can perceive the real population limits of an individual church community. Except for the Cathedral (which is not the usual parish by a long shot), the regular church should be small enough to make necessary and unavoidable this dynamic of "iron sharpening iron" aspect of koinonia. A church should never be so large that anonymity can be expected.
It may be that the great failure of American Orthodoxy has been that non-cathedral city parishes were ever permitted to grow beyond 200.
This is counter-intuitive, I know, because we have all been trained to evaluate church life by institutional markers of growth -- markers that are suspiciously lifted out of business and marketing contexts. We have adopted the idea that a parish really must go to where it can grow. It really must extend beyond the fifty to a hundred population of membership, and extend itself into the two-hundreds and beyond.
I say a big fat no to this. Anonymity is a curse that has violated the Orthodox ethic of "deification in fellowship." The very dynamic that the usual American "SBNR" is afraid of is the actual mediation of grace that the SBNR needs to save his soul.
The very irritations, the annoyances, the disappointments and the hurt feelings that make up for most of the self-anointed narratives that justify most transfers to larger (and more entertaining) churches are themselves what the transferee needed the most.
This is the famous "iron sharpening iron" aspect of fellowship. Fellowship, in the traditional, apostolic Christian idiom, is more than the smell of coffee in a musty church basement. And it is more than the reprehensible "what does this verse mean to you?" mushy exegesis.
"Fellowship" is nothing less than "Christological koinonia" -- and koinonia, for it to be a mediation of grace for theosis, must always involve the self-sacrifice of ego.
Our ecclesial word for such "self-sacrifice" is kenosis, of course.
Never has kenosis been more unpopular than today, in this nation. The reason for that essentially selfish psychopathology is not because the ego is too strong -- rather, it is because the ego is too weak. This contemporary culture has produced an ego that is too impoverished, too infantile to have the confidence to give itself away.
I know I have conflated two categories: the SBNR ("spiritual but not religious") and those Christians who migrate toward anonymity. To me, they are of one piece. Persons of both categories are restless, seeking transcendence or "meaning." But they fear a congregation that will miss them when they are absent, whose finances will hurt when they do not contribute, whose body will be wounded by their severance.
In such an experience of real, deifying and sacramental fellowship, there can be no hiding, and false displays and pretenses either fall flat or are readily seen through.
This experience, I believe, accounts for most of the "SBNR" impulse. There are exceptions, to be sure, but the need for anonymity and a protection of a lazy, fragile ego are the real culprits behind the undeniable dominance of "non-churched and irreligious" as the largest denomination in America today.