Where are we going? Is the Church as we know it dying? That is the provocative question asked in a new documentary called “When God Left the Building.” Produced by Group Productions, it is a stark examination of the erosion taking place in Protestant churches these days.
The film has several story lines: a long-standing church in New Jersey that can’t abide change, even as it withers; the glitz and glamor of high-tech, high production quality megachurches filling cavernous spaces with crowds and measuring their performance with business metrics; a group of Christians looking to reach people in a setting outside the church walls.
The documentary asks if the Church is a bit like Kodak — the huge film company that ended up in bankruptcy because it could not adapt to changes in technology and consumer habits. The failure of Kodak becomes a metaphor in the film for what could happen if the churches don’t adapt to new needs and new expectations.
Megachurches are sharply criticized as highly effective business enterprises that are not necessarily better at meeting the needs of their people. One person says that in the megachurch everyone counts who is coming in the front door, but no one is counting who leaves by the back door.
It is an important point. The Pew Research Center, for example, regularly announces how many Hispanic Catholics are departing for various Protestant denominations. Yet the fastest growing segment of Hispanics is those that answer “none” when asked their religious affiliation. In fact, “nones” are growing faster than any other religious option in our society. Does leaving one church make it easier to leave the next? And at what point is it easier to decide that being spiritual is just as good as being religious?
For the makers of “When God Left the Building,” the clear answer is a new evangelizing spirit that looks beyond the church building and finds people where they are at. One of the most eloquent voices in the film is a remarkable, faith-filled police officer in Pennsylvania. He asks why he is spending Sundays with people who believe as he believes when he should be going out and meeting people who don’t, and he searches for a better way to do that.
While the film may be somewhat controversial in Protestant circles, none of this is new to Catholics. We have been aware of shrinking numbers of Catholic baptisms, first Communions and sacramental marriages. We have seen the impact of demographic shifts and struggled with the same distrust of institutions afflicting Protestant churches and denominations.
The film’s warnings about the weak substitutes for Jesus Christ — environmental activism, for example — apply to us as well. Yet there are signs of hope for Catholics. Some great things have been happening, like Sherry Weddell’s call for “intentional discipleship” and the New Evangelization. Catholics who are paying attention get the film’s point that we should get up from our pews and go out to the world.
At the same time, no Catholic can ever say that God has left the building. We know that God will never leave our building as long as there remains one priest able to consecrate one host. Yet the Holy Spirit seems to be trying to tell us something. With the election of Pope Francis, with the new energy around the evangelization, we are being challenged to get out of our comfort zone.
“Quo vadis?” the Lord is said to have asked Peter when he was fleeing the persecution in Rome. “Where are you going?” The Lord’s question caused Peter to return to the city. “Quo vadis?” the Spirit is asking us today. Where are we going to bear witness to the Gospel?
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.