A blogpost went viral last year with an explosive headline: “If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left.” The article, written by Ed Stetzer, first appeared on the Washington Post’s blog and quickly made the rounds in the echo-chamber of church social media. Some dismissed the article as over-the-top, while others accepted it as gospel and began packing their church offices.

This blogpost came to mind recently as I began looking ahead to the sermons I will preach during Holy Week and Easter. I thought to myself, “What am I called to say on the 23rd Easter before the end?”

(In full disclosure, my first thought was that I could make that into a funny Tweet: “Who’s ready for the 23rd-to-last Easter?”)

As I thought about the question, the irony slowly began to wash over me.

What am I to say to a dying body about the Resurrected One? What am I to say to an institution that is beginning to gather the sheets and pillows to make its bed in the grave about Jesus Christ who broke the chains of death?

 

The Church Decline Industrial ComplexTM is quick to announce new figures about the rate of decline. One response chosen by pastors and priests is to jump anxiously from one curriculum or practice or ministerial gimmick with salvific implications in hopes that they can stop the leak.

Another response is one that I am prone to: just give up. If we are declining that fast and those in the highest levels of authority in the church seemed utterly unconcerned with true metanoia, I might as well pack up and go home. I could work in advertising or better yet, I could be a health coach. Everyone wants a health coach these days!

At my best (and only by the grace of God), I can step back enough to see that the only solution to the decline of the Church is faith. More specifically, faith that Jesus Christ is mighty to save. There is no curriculum or new missional practice or book that holds the secret to everlasting life. There is no new priest your parish can call and there is no new youth minister that will magically turn things around.

23 Easters left? I hope we aren’t banking on that many!

After the crucifixion, the disciples were huddled and afraid. Some of them immediately went back to their old jobs and starting fishing again. For them, there were no Easters left, but God acted. Jesus rose and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus is found where there is no hope and no sensible route of escape. Jesus is present to those who have no future, no Plan B, no other options but faith.

The only hope that the mainline denominations have is the only hope we have ever had: Jesus Christ.

I do not say all of this to say that we need to bury our heads in the sand and act like everything is fine. Everything is not fine. There are principalities and powers and systems of oppression at work in the world hellbent on destroying the children of God. Any glimpse at the news shows a world turning in on itself. We see the fantasy of the garden realized: we have become gods, and we are destroying ourselves.

And yet, every Sunday, Christians gather to proclaim Easter as the event that began to turn the world right again. We proclaim that we may only have 23 Easters left as mainline denominations. If we’re honest, we proclaim that we may not even make it to this next Easter, but by the grace of God — even in the grave — we make our song, “Alleluia!”*

The Church is not simply a human nonprofit organization, just like the Bible is not simply a book of folklore about human interactions with God. The Church is Christ’s body. The Bible is a book about God’s action to rescue, redeem, and reanimate the corpses created by humanity’s failures from the beginning of time until its inevitable end. The Church exists for that proclamation.

It may be the end of the world for the mainline denominations, but I know what I will preach this Holy Week and Easter: That Christ died for our sins, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures. Alleluia!**

*If you made a face because I wrote Alleluia during Lent: look at your life, look at your choices.

**See above.