Pruning and Cold Hardening of the Church
Recently I read a commentary by a pastor that identified American Christianity in a stage of pruning, of winter hardening. Cold hardening is the physiological and biochemical process by which an organism prepares for cold weather.
When the temperature drops, a plants membrane’s fluidity changes. The cells shrink as water is drawn out. In order to maintain surface area cells form more and stronger strands, tubelike structures that connect the protoplast to the cell wall. Even while the cell is shrinking, it is building stronger connections that will allow the cell to remain strong during the winter and prepared to expand when the warmer weather arrives.
The temperature for Christianity appears to be dropping in America. The number of people in America that identify as Christian is dropping. In 2018 and 2019 the Pew Research Center telephone surveys revealed 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians. This is a decline of 12% from a decade ago. The people who identify with “nothing in particular” has increased over that same period from 17% to 26%. (https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/).
Rates of affiliation are not the only thing in decline. All Christian denominations are experiencing a decline in attendance. More Americans now say they attend religious services a few times a year or less (54%) than say they attend at least monthly (45%). The rate of attendance is even more alarming as the numbers are looked at by age group. About two-thirds of Millennials attend religious services a few times a year or less often, including four-in-ten who say they seldom or never go.
Christians are declining as a share of the population in the U.S. and as an absolute number.
The causes of this decline are difficult to pinpoint. There is not just one cause and so there is not just one fix. Carey Nieuwhof wrote an article explaining ten reasons why church attenders are attending less often (https://careynieuwhof.com/10-reasons-even-committed-church-attenders-attending-less-often/). Most of his explanations demonstrate that Christianity is not convenient in our culture.
There is some research that points out that the number of people in churches that clearly identify with the teaching of their denomination and consistently attend church has not significantly varied. The number of people that are culturally Christians as a matter of convenience has declined as Christianity has become less convenient. This evaluation of the data tries to explain the decades long drift away from church attendance as a demonstration that cultural Christianity no longer exists.
The summer season of easy growth in congregations has passed and congregations are moving into a winter season filled with challenges for survival. Tim Keller (https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/witness_winsomeness_and_winter) has identified four “seasons” in the cycle of the church’s relation to the culture. You can read about this framework in more detail in his book Center Church.
- Winter - the church faces hostility from the culture, is weak or underground, and sees limited evangelistic fruit
- Spring - the church is embattled but growing and signs of life are beginning to break through
- Summer - the church is highly regarded in the public square and Christians are involved in the center of cultural production
- Autumn - the church experiencing a decline in cultural influence and believers are increasingly marginalized
The move between seasons will create conflict in congregations as expectations for previously successful strategies are not reframed for the changing context.
Does this mean the end of the church? No. A church built by human hands may fall apart, but the church that is the communion of saints built by the Spirit of God will never fall.
During the transition between autumn and winter seasons of the church, we will be marginalized and persecuted. We will experience a decline in cultural influence. We will no longer be the center of cultural movements. This shrinking of the church in the public square will be difficult. People who are not prepared to see this changing of seasons will be confused and angry at their cultural church being taken away.
Winter seasons are necessary for deciduous trees. Unchecked growth of trees without winter lead to soft and mushy trees that have overladen branches that lack the structure to feed them. Winter hardening provides a tree the opportunity to strengthen the Hechtian strands, tubelike structures that connect the protoplast with the cell wall. The shrinking of the plant’s cells during winter allow it to release some of the unsustainable growth which did not have supporting structure. The winter season can lead to deeper roots but the difficult pruning of winter may make a tree look bare until the blooming leaves of summer again appear.
The church has gone through these seasons before and emerged stronger and better prepared. We will endure if we build on the strong foundation of Christ. We will tumble and fall if we build our identity on having a central place in American culture. Our roots are deep when they are nourished by the savior God that created the world. Our roots are shallow when they are nourished by the praise and pomp of the latest viral trends of the internet. When the storms of winter come the trees with shallow roots will be uprooted. John the Baptist told the Phariseesa and Sadducees come to his baptism, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9-10).
The pruning of the branches is difficult to understand, but we trust in the wisdom of the Lord. Isaiah wrote, “For before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he cuts off the shoots with pruning hooks, and the spreading branches he lops off and clears away” (Isaiah 18:5). Jesus also references this work of the Lord in John 15, and confidently declares, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that does not bear fruit he takes away and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear fruit” (John 15:1-2). We should be praying for the vinedresser to prune us so we may bear fruit.