Issue 37: Church

Spring 2024

It is no secret that church attendance and membership is declining in America. According to Gallup’s data, church membership—broadly defined—has dropped by 30% over the course of the last thirty years. The religious landscape is a fractured, pluralistic space, and American churches are no exception. Mainline churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian) have no idea what to make of their evangelical counterparts, and Evangelicals continue defining themselves over-against what they see occurring in both mainline denominations and society more broadly. And the future of the church seems to be in the global south which is witnessing unprecedented growth and presenting new theological challenges to the northern hemisphere. Churches of all stripes continue reckoning with abuse crises and scandals of astounding scales, and we have yet to see how deep the wormhole goes.

And while that is all definitely true, those showing up in churches across America on a weekly basis also believe there is something more to the narrative (though certainly nothing less). But that something “more” is itself contested. What exactly do we mean when we say “Church?” And how do we discern what it means to be the church that brings good news to the world in this particular moment in history? What are the most important and pressing roles and tasks of the church? What are we to make of the church’s harms, failures, and abuses? What is the role of the church in society today, and how ought we think of the broader church’s declining numbers? What in our ecclesiologies needs to be rethought and reimagined to facilitate flourishing in this next chapter of its existence?

In this issue, the reader will find a variety of essays, stories, and poems that attempt to start answering these questions.

Carolyn Whitnall


i lay and listened to the rain last night          it felt a bit like sleep and they were there     in torrents laughing that i put my hand up to my sin at four            “adorable” (i couldn’t win) just tell me    i am saved and in the silence on the edges at the threshold of another deluge […]

Jo-Ann Badley

Rethinking Religious Experience

Edward Howells and Mark A. McIntosh, eds., Oxford Handbook of Mystical Theology (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020). The first Sunday after Easter we opened our church service with the words from John’s Gospel: “Have you believed, Thomas, because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (20:29 NRSV). […]

Andrew Arndt

The Living and Dying Church

Everybody keeps telling me that the church is dying. I keep wondering if we know what that means. A few Sundays ago, we baptized a whole mess of folks in the church where I pastor. One of them was a teenage girl with whom our family has become close. We’re quite fond of her. Her […]

John Schweiker Shelton

Praying Towns, Parachurch Ministries, and the Need for Sodality

In a sense, Massachusetts Bay Colony was North America’s first parachurch ministry. According to its 1629 charter, “The principal end of this plantation” was to “win and incite the natives . . . to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian faith.”[1] The colony even marked […]

Joshua Heavin

Life for the Dead and Mercy for the Undeserving

Jonathan A. Linebaugh, The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2022). “The word of the cross” animates the Epistles of Paul (1 Cor. 1:18 RSV). The world is scandalized by this word, dismissing it as folly and weakness. Yet, paradoxically, it is in this word God’s saving power and wisdom are […]

Myles Werntz

Digital Church

In the world before the global pandemic, the question of digital church was relegated to futurists and megachurches, to church planters–cum–app developers. Without a doubt this question of digital church was already too late, though. By the time that 2020 happened, it was no longer a question of whether digital church would become normalized but […]

David Milley


My father wove his sermons long. Sundays, when he preached, the congregation settled in. They knew he’d be awhile. First, from Scripture, a verse, then its story, then history, exegesis, and, at last, the moral. Nothing moved quickly in Dad’s tales. He spun homilies in empty air. My eyes blinked and crossed. I squirmed. Mom […]

Angela Elizabeth Townsend

Off the Vine

I didn’t want to be seen. I was the sprite in the Nikon, invisible behind the lens. I set myself the goal of photographing all 114 churches in our rural county. GPS was a mere toddler then, prone to unorthodox directions. I found myself in swamps or surrounded by white ducks in search of mythological […]

Jennifer Anne Moses

The Jewish Wars

The op-ed by Rachel Grossman was called “Why I Live at the JCC,” and Miriam, reading it to its end, felt the coffee she’d just imbibed rise in her throat, a bitter black bile. Miriam hated Rachel Grossman with a passion she otherwise reserved for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and hunters of big game. Her hatred […]

Blake Leland

Take Me to the Water

from the collection of Jim Linderman It is a book of photographs, postal cards some of them, of people gathered at a river to witness and to be baptized. In this one, nothing at the horizon rises higher than the dark, open umbrellas, like little clouds, some ladies hold against the sun. At least a […]

Donna J. Gelagotis Lee

Water on the Hillside

It was a river. No, it was a stream. Or perhaps it was a spring that flowed from a mountain, because it was so clear, and everyone wanted to drink. In the distance, there was a church with many lights starting from one light. There is a story about the light that had to do […]

Richard Spilman

Deep Sea

Wave of the priestly hand, and the lights slowly dim. “Sin,” he says, “is darkness, though what seems so dark to us is but a shadow of the greater gloom we’re too naive to see. Its waters close round, and the grace we breathe like air departs as we drown.” His words weary me. I […]

Nancy L. Meyer

Zebulon on the Steeple

1753. . . . when the cock was placed at the top of the steeple Zeb Prutt . . . ascended to the summit, sat on the copper bird and imitated the crowing of a rooster. —Sylvester Judd, History of Hadley, 1863 I can’t stop seeing Zebulon on the steeple, hearing his call singe the […]

Rebecca D. Martin

The Second Time I Laughed during Holy Communion

after Ross Gay’s Inciting Joy the whole right half of the sanctuary the people sliding their hands along the hard smooth polished backs of pews couldn’t figure out how to shuffle down the aisle at the right time one section lining up all the way to the door the other side forgetting to join them […]

Scott MacDougall

Who Needs Church?

In the post-Christian, postsecular Global North, people inside and outside of Christian communities look around and observe shrinking membership in churches across the denominational spectrum. Christians and non-Christians alike notice the world keeps on turning even as their local churches dwindle, consolidate, or close. They see the intensifying polarization and politicization of Christian commitments. They […]

Paul R. Hoard

On Pleasure and Games

Over the past couple of decades, the board game industry has exploded. Game-related stores, cafes, bars, and conventions have been popping up all over the world, and the game industry produced about $18 billion in revenue for 2022, a number that is expected to steadily rise.[1] Although this growth can be analyzed from many different […]

Casey Andrew Perkins

The Future Is Diaconal

In June of 2023, I was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. And the thing that everyone seems to want to know is why—why not remain a layperson or why not become a priest? The short answer is that this is the vocation to which I believe I am called, but there’s much more […]

L. B. Blackwell


In retrospect, I can say that I joined the church out of basic need; I was becoming a Christian, and as the religion can’t be practiced alone, I needed to try to align myself with a community of faith. —Kathleen Norris I am looking out the large front windows of the Sister Mary Anselm Hermitage. […]

Kyle Stevenson

Rich Wounds Yet Visible

I have a disability, I am Black, and I am an ordained Baptist minister. I grew up in the Black Baptist church tradition, a tradition with sermons and songs that have interpreted the healing texts in the Gospels through an ableist lens. That means that in my church and many others, we have normalized a […]

Justin Coyle

Theology in Retrograde

I I am sometimes asked how serving as a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church shapes the way I read and write and teach theology. The truth is that I cosset a general allergy to the question. Answers to it often decline into styles, and each of these styles court reduction. One style reduces […]

Kirsten Sanders

The Map Is Not the Territory

Meghan Larissa Good, Divine Gravity: Sparking a Movement to Recover a Better Christian Story (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald, 2023). Aaron Renn, Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2024). People’s ideas of geography are not founded on actual facts but on Mercator’s map. —G. J. Morrison, British […]

Kate Rae Davis

Seeking Uncertainty

The lasagna is just being served when she asks what we all think about the use of mushrooms in therapeutic practices. A retiree tells about using psychedelics in the ’70s and the immediate transformation he experienced. That leads to a conversation on slower, more mundane transformations. We go around the table, each of us sharing […]

John Swinton

Sharing in the Life of Jesus

Not so long ago I was talking to a friend, Jeanette, who had just been diagnosed with dementia. It came as quite a shock to her. She said that her first response was fear; she was afraid that she was somehow going to lose herself. With fear came a sense of embarrassment. “I know how […]

Paul Dafydd Jones

The Unconfinable God

I. What is the church? I am somewhat confident when I begin to formulate a doctrinal response to this question. The church is an assembly of creatures that materializes Christ’s body at a particular moment in space and time. It convenes in Christ’s name; it continues his lifelong prayer to God; it exhibits the kingdom […]