The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Sorry to burst your bubble

Life inside a bubble can feel complete, even dynamic, as the bubble's surface shimmers and yet retains form.

When the surface is breached, the bubble collapses immediately, shattering into a liquid spray. What looked like a permanent structure is, in fact, uncertain and quickly lost.

We saw a "tech bubble" burst 13 years ago. What had seemed durable and laden with value turned out to be vapor. The "housing bubble" came next. Some think another tech bubble is about to burst.

The bubble I see bursting is establishment Christianity in America. It is bursting ever so slowly, even as millions of people still find life, meaning, safety and structure inside. But one failing congregation at a time, the surface of shimmering shape is being breached.

Collapse comes quickly. Suddenly, as if overnight, the money is gone. Bills can't be paid. Clergy are unaffordable. Young families flee or stay away. Aging buildings are handed over to others.

In this sad process, many people discover that their primary religious interest had been sustaining the institution. They hadn't learned to rely on prayer, to see their lives as a mission for God, to make decisions in the world based on godly admonition, or to form sustainable spiritual relationships beyond bubble boundaries.

I recently wrote a column on Pope Benedict XVI's surprise retirement. I lamented his eight years of leading the Roman Catholic Church backward. I lamented the church's track record of supporting injustice in order to defend the institution.

The column drew an immediate burst of rage from staunch Roman Catholic traditionalists, who termed me anti-Roman Catholic and a religious bigot, and therefore inherently wrong and unfit to write a column. Their vehemence was so over-the-top that I wondered if a bubble was being breached. They were rising to defend something that suddenly looked vulnerable, maybe even passing away. They wouldn't see it that way, of course. In their eyes, the church is built on solid rock and will last forever. Those who deal in bubbles often see reality that way. Then the bubble bursts.

In the past 50 years — a mere wink in 2,000 years of church time — mainline Protestant churches have become a shadow of their 1950s heyday. Roman Catholic dioceses in America are closing schools and parishes, losing nuns and priests, and spending heavily to settle sex abuse lawsuits. Other denominations are struggling, too, such as Southern Baptists. So are megachurches once they get beyond the excitement and personal charisma of the founding pastor.

Bubble bursting isn't limited to whatever denomination or tradition you don't like. Nor is it anti-Roman Catholic (or anti-anything) to lament over it. When the wind of God's Spirit is trapped inside bubbles, this is what happens. The Spirit aims to roam freely over the landscape, creating what God wants created, changing lives, sending people out, showering grace on those who need it, sending prophets to call down the greedy and self-serving.

That wind blows where it will and cannot be held for long inside any bubble, no matter how fervently some want to see that bubble as a rock-solid structure and the bubble's shimmering surface as a sign of God's great and eternal delight. 


Brian Peterson

Brian Peterson

Posted at 11:59 am (U.S. Eastern) 3/19/2013

The title of the article caught my eye. I really appreciate Erlich's image of the bursting bubble. As a pastor of a small church in decline it's hard not to get discouraged these days. The evocative description of the Spirit breaking out of our humanly constructed bubble gives me a sense of hope. Thanks.

Irma Kelly

Irma Kelly

Posted at 12:13 pm (U.S. Eastern) 3/19/2013

Yes, the image of the bubble with the wind of God's Spirit trapped inside is helpful.  --  Our bishop has introduced us to the work of Phyllis Tickle, especially the ideas in her book "The Great Emergence".  Our congregation is about to undertake a study of it.  It has given me new and hopeful eyes.

Barb Kuenzi

Barb Kuenzi

Posted at 12:25 pm (U.S. Eastern) 3/19/2013

Note: Barb Kuenzi edited this post at 12:30 pm on 3/19/2013.

Melvin G Swoyer

Melvin G Swoyer

Posted at 12:56 pm (U.S. Eastern) 3/19/2013

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 3:39 pm (U.S. Eastern) 3/19/2013

But what is "the church" or any particular congregation? Is it "the worshipping community at..." is it "those who feel led to go out and do good work in the wider community, based from...?" Can it be sometimes one or the other? What is a musician? Is it a pianist or a guitarist? Do we have to choose?

What is my point? Lately I've seen many letters and columns that seem to lambaste the "traditionalists" who see the church in terms of being "the worshipping community at..." for being out of touch with the times, and the reason why the church bubble is bursting. But maybe there's still a place for people who see the church as "the worshipping community at..." while helping out their fellow humans through other, non-church, venues.

My problem is not with the shrinking church per se, but with the shrinking church in places that once needed say 100 Lutheran churches within a 10 mile radius, and none of them wants to be the first to throw in the towel and merge with another. It doesn't seem good stewardship to have 100 25-member congregations within a 10-mile radius. Better, it seems to me, to have 25 100-member, or 10 250-member congregations. Maybe we don't need to have a church on every corner anymore.

Maybe we could have 10 sites for "the worshipping community at..."

Karin Johnson

Karin Johnson

Posted at 8:27 am (U.S. Eastern) 3/20/2013

I agree ... maybe we don't need a church on every corner, but having been through a failed consolidation process with my own congregation, I understand the complexities of joining diverse groups of worshipers. Pastors also differ and their leadership needs sincerity and the effort to reach the hearts of Christians living in this fast-paced and very secular culture. Even small churches can care for those both inside and outside of the church, and share God's love in far-reaching ways.

I am hopeful that Francis I, though conservative on some issues, can lead the Catholic church to refocus on the message of Jesus ... helping, healing and spreading justice for the poor and oppressed.

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 1:28 am (U.S. Eastern) 3/20/2013

Our pastor told us that he had recently read that the current "decline" in membership is the result of an unusual "blip" in attendance after WWII. We overbuilt because we wanted to "trust the Holy Spirit" rather than be cautious and look at the demographics. And even had we looked at the demographics, what they showed in 1950 is a lot different from what they showed in 1970.

My home [Episcopal] church, founded in 1890-something to be the second Episcopal church in that town, threw in the towel and merged with the first one in 1972 because they saw the demographics for that part of New Jersey changing. In fact, they didn't want to sell the old property to another congregation and eventually saddle them with the same demographic realities.

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that perhaps this lamented "decline" in church attendance is really a *correction* back to what historic levels were before WWII, but that none of us remembers.

Print subscribers and supporting Web members may comment.

Log in or Subscribe to comment.

text size:

this page: email | print

February issue


Embracing diversity