The Big Sort

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Big Sort

 I recently had a provocative conversation about church trends with a person who grew up in church but does not participate in it now. He asked whether we knew the reasons for the decades-long decline of church membership in North America, and whether there were any points along the way that stood out as major drop-offs.

I replied that, by my read, the decline has been more gradual than episodic. I also pointed out that decline is not the whole story, as many congregations have grown. Nor is it a simple story, as many churches have seen their mission and financial capacities stay strong or even grow even as membership has declined. But back to the main point – changes in church membership over the past few decades have not been episodic or directly caused by particular events or cultural developments.

Until now.

Nothing in recent generations has affected church participation like the COVID-19 pandemic. And we cannot yet tell what the full extent of its impact will be.

At the end of 2020, when congregations were asked to report church attendance in their annual statistical reports, many had no idea how to respond. Could they count people who participated online? If so, did they have to stay on the site for a particular length of time to count? Denominational officials finally ruled, “Make up the numbers as best you can.” 2021 figures are not much easier to calculate. Most of our congregations returned to in-person worship in 2021, but with reduced attendance in the sanctuary and varying degrees of accompanying online livestream attendance.

Whether we participate in the life of the church is one thing; how and where we do so are very different matters.

A recent report in Christianity Today noted that one of the effects of the pandemic has been that church members have become more likely to move their participation to a new church. In many cases, they were already unsettled in their church, and the pandemic provided them previously unavailable opportunities to disengage gracefully from their church and to try out new ones.

Just as it did in exacerbating previously repressed church conflicts, the pandemic magnified discontentment that was already present. Members that had been feeling out of step with their congregations for one reason or another found it took less effort to leave now that attending worship in person was no longer the norm. Others who had grown weary of long commutes to church were able to break away more easily.

I call it “the big sort.” Church affiliations and participation have become much more fluid, and members are taking advantage of the opportunity to find new places and ways to join in the church’s life and ministry.

Along with this big sort has come a big resignation. Many who were actively engaged in church life, but had grown weary, found it easier to step away during the pandemic. Some of them may never return.

Once we are able again to measure accurately our church membership for statistical reporting purposes, we will discover a sharp shift from pre-pandemic times. What will that mean for the vitality and mission of the church moving forward?

In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle pointed out that every five hundred years or so, the church has gone through a major paradigm shift. She called it a giant “rummage sale” – out with the old to make room for the new. At the end of the fifth century, the church coalesced into its catholic expression after being consolidated both by Rome’s official adoption of Christianity and the emerging consensus of churches around core Christian doctrine and canon. At the end of the tenth century, the catholic consensus split, and the church divided into two broad separate streams, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Catholic church decay spawned the Protestant Reformation. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, according to Tickle, we should expect a major reconfiguration once again. She didn’t have a pandemic in mind when she published her book in 2008. But perhaps it will be the catalyst for a revolution already in the making.

From institution to movement.

From buildings to people.

From membership to relationship.

From doctrine to practice.

Institutions. Buildings. Membership. Doctrine. All are important. But none are enough.

I see these as hopeful transitions. They will change the shape of the church, aligning us better with the mission of Jesus, who came not to launch a program, but that the world “might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

This is Jesus’ big sort – life from decay, joy from sorrow, freedom from oppression, peace from strife. Are we all in?

Yours in the way of Jesus,

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