If I were to write about the burdens of the preacher as I have experienced them and as I know them," declared Martin Luther, "I would scare everybody off."
A glance at 21st-century headlines about religion and the church would not have made Luther feel any better than he did in the 16th. We live in a context of ominous bulletins about the value and place of religion in society. Many people still believe in the classic secularization theory, that modernity inevitably entails the steady decline of religion.
With magazines like Newsweek announcing "The End of Christian America," it is easy to give in to fear and the perception of decline. Not only can worries like that become self-fulfilling, more often than not, they also blind one to the enduring nature of the visible church in our world.
It would be hard to find a century when the church and clergy have not faced challenges in ministry and concerns about decline. Just counting the number of historical studies detailing the "crisis" and "anxiety" of ages past suggests these labels are too worn-out to be descriptive anymore.
Consider the decline that challenged Christianity during the last phase of imperial persecution in the early 4th century, when Christians lapsed or were martyred and churches and Christian books destroyed. The faith ultimately spread and flourished in response. But though imperial persecution ceased with the Edict of Milan in 313, unity was elusive. The church was coming to grips with an ecclesiology of wheat and tares in a fallen world. Some, like Augustine of Hippo, welcomed lapsed Christians back into the church, while the Donatists rejected them.
The church also has dealt with its share of moral decline. The medieval church confronted financial corruption ...