There is no Christian denomination in the United States that is experiencing tremendous growth right now. In fact, the major Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church are all experiencing decline. There are many studies surrounding the church and these days, they mostly seem to analyze reductions in the size of congregations, staff, and denominations, and then tell pastors how to do the same things with fewer resources.
In these difficult times, there are still ways that one can minister with realism and optimism. The first way is to remember that the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is not a Western enterprise. I tell my students that we are so used to bulletins in church that we are surprised when we go to a service outside the US and find that they do not have these elaborate bulletins. However, the bigger surprise when we go outside the Western world to South and Central America, Asia, and Africa, is finding that the church has experienced tremendous growth in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. Today, countries like Korea are sending more missionaries than the United States does, and the Philippines and Nigeria provide the largest number of pastors and priests. Just because the church is not growing here does not mean it is not growing worldwide.
The second way to minister is to have a knowledge of the church during the past two thousand years. Some Muslim clerics falsely state that Christianity is the creation of white people to suppress others. As a matter of fact, people did not think in terms of continents during the first millennium; instead, they thought in terms of the Mediterranean world. When the first ecumenical council of Nicea took place in 325 AD, it was not a white man’s council. It was well-represented by people from what we now call Europe, Asia, and Africa. St. Augustine, the first theological doctor of the church, was biracial—his mother was of Roman nobility and his father was part of a Berber tribe, from the country we call Algeria today. A good study of history will show us that there were many places in the first millennium where Christianity was a dominant religion, but by the end of the millennium they were a majority in some places and ceased to exist in others.
We can also find hope when we look at countries where Christianity almost died out completely but came back much stronger than before. During the time of Mao, he closed all the churches and anything religious in China. Many Christian leaders were sent to jail for 10-30 years. When Mao died, churches were opened again. To everyone’s surprise, they were filled with people young and old. Fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to China. I met a pastor who was jailed for his Christian faith. He was asked why he thought the church had been successful in China. He replied, “Because of what your missionaries taught us, and the Western church has forgotten. When Mao closed all the churches, we continued to pray. What you see today is the result of our united prayer.”
The Ascension of Jesus is usually celebrated in May. The Risen Lord saw Peter, the Apostle who denied Jesus three times, during that week. He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter answered in the affirmative each time. Jesus told him to feed the lambs and the sheep. We as priests and pastors are asked to feed the people who are in our churches. The Psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him.” (Psalm 34:8) Those who have tasted and seen how good and gracious the Lord is will continue to proclaim the Lord’s goodness and love.