Dark night of the church: Relearning the essentials

Frederick Buechner wrote that “dreams of fame and fortune die hard if they ever die at all.” Sometimes it takes a long, dark night of the soul before those dreams die, before they are wrenched from imaginations that cling to them. And sometimes it’s God who does this work in us.

Is there also, as Elaine Heath asks in her book The Mystic Way of Evangelism, a dark night of the church? Are we experiencing it? Is God at work wrenching our alluring memories of social prominence and significance from our minds, ripping dreams of fame and fortune from our imaginations? Recently a church member mentioned the “good old days” when we had to put up folding chairs in the aisles on Easter Sunday. Is God inviting us to let go of those days and the accompanying dreams and memories?

If there is a dark night of the church, we’ll need to rethink the sociological narrative of mainline Christianity that’s been part of our identity for the past 40 years. It’s a narrative we all know well, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In the Century article “Crunching the numbers” (April 2, 2012) William McKinney summarized the main findings of five sociological accounts of religion in America over the past several decades. Says McKinney, “Protestantism continues to lose market share and will soon be a minority religious tradition.”