Institutions Opinion

COMMENTARY: Sorry to burst your bubble

bubble burst
RNS photo courtesy

(RNS) Life inside a bubble can feel complete, even dynamic, as the bubble’s surface shimmers and yet retains form.

When the surface is breached, the bubble collapses immediately, shattering into a liquid spray faster than a metal object can fall through where it used to be. What looked like a permanent structure is, in fact, uncertain and quickly lost.

We saw a ”tech bubble” burst 13 years ago. What had seemed durable and laden with value turned out to be vapor. The “housing bubble” came next. Some think another “tech bubble” is about to burst.

The bubble I see bursting is establishment Christianity in America. It is bursting ever so slowly, even as millions of people still find life, meaning, safety and structure inside. But one failing congregation at a time, the surface of shimmering shape is being breached.

Collapse comes quickly. Suddenly, as if overnight, the money is gone. Bills can’t be paid. Clergy are unaffordable. Young families flee or stay away. Aging buildings are handed over to others.

In this sad process, many people discover that their primary religious interest had been sustaining the institution. They hadn’t learned to rely on prayer, to see their lives as a mission for God, to make decisions in the world based on godly admonition, or to form sustainable spiritual relationships beyond bubble boundaries.

I recently wrote a column on Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise retirement. I lamented his eight years of leading the Roman Catholic Church backward. I lamented the church’s track record of supporting injustice in order to defend the institution.

bubble burst

RNS photo courtesy

My column drew an immediate burst of rage from staunch Catholic traditionalists, who termed me “anti-Catholic” and a religious “bigot,” and therefore inherently wrong and unfit to write a column.

Their vehemence was so over-the-top that I wondered if a bubble was being breached. They were rising to defend something that suddenly looked vulnerable, maybe even passing away.

They wouldn’t see it that way, of course. In their eyes, the church is built on solid rock and will last forever. Those who deal in bubbles often see reality that way. Then the bubble bursts.

In the past 50 years – a mere wink in 2,000 years of church time – mainline Protestant churches have become a shadow of their 1950s heyday. Roman Catholic dioceses in America are closing schools and parishes, losing nuns and priests, and spending heavily to settle sex abuse lawsuits.

Other denominations are struggling, too, such as Southern Baptists. So are megachurches once they get beyond the excitement and personal charisma of the founding pastor.

Bubble bursting isn’t limited to whatever denomination or tradition you don’t like. Nor is it anti-Catholic (or anti-anything) to lament over it. When the wind of God’s Spirit is trapped inside bubbles, this is what happens.

The Spirit aims to roam freely over the landscape, creating what God wants created, changing lives, sending people out, showering grace on those who need it, sending prophets to call down the greedy and self-serving,

That wind blows where it will and cannot be held for long inside any bubble, no matter how fervently some want to see that bubble as a rock-solid structure and the bubble’s shimmering surface as a sign of God’s great and eternal delight.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)


About the author

Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is


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  • But we can pay money to subscribe to your blog. You give new meaning to pastoring the flock. I would not worry about the Catholics as the Episcopalians have been emptying the pews for years.

  • You are right about the bubble. Methodism is so invested in a “one size fits all” organizational structure for churches and so obsessed with analyzing itself via numbers (now we are expected to keep track of the gender of all members) resulting in analysis unto paralysis that if given the choice many local churches would give up Methodist structure while keeping Wesleyan theology. There is no longer any denomination in which those politically liberal and politically conservative can kneel together in some level of spiritual companionship. I see the house church as an option more and more will try.

  • Lovely commentary. I enjoyed it thoroughly, especially the idea of the Spirit, freed of bubbles (which I interpret as manmade), roaming across the landscape. To me, this pertains to many aspects of Christianity in the U.S., from the breakdown of denominations to the growth of the Nones, many of whom are honest seekers after a truth they aren’t finding in their neighborhood churches. Will house churches prevail? Perhaps, for a while, as the old churches continue to dwindle and die. I think Christianity as a whole will dwindle, for I see little hope of Christianity freeing itself from its alliance with politics, particularly conservative politics; I see no impetus toward evangelization free of political particularization. Many thanks, however, for this thoughtful and nicely written commentary.

  • A bubble has indeed popped. A bubble of illusion.

    The church has long managed to convince its flock of all the central Christian claims: salvation, hell, resurrection, and so on.

    And this has always required a certain amount of prestidigitation. God is, after all, invisible, and the only information we have about him is found in increasingly ancient texts from the Middle East. It takes a certain pre-enlightenment mindset with an exaggerated regard for tradition and authority to maintain such a bubble of beliefs.

    Over the last few decades, with the accelerating dissemination of education and knowledge, the bubble of religion is looking increasingly weak and unsustainable.

    People just can’t suspend disbelief anymore, and the bubble looks set to burst.

  • Dear Mr. Harrison: First, you commit the common modern fallacy of assuming that anyone born before the twentieth century was superstitious, incapable of proving and disproving claims, easily duped and inherently weak. The number of pioneers of science like Vesalius, Harvey, Boyle, Leeuwenhoek, Newton and Pascal who saw no conflict between their religious faith and their scientific life challenges your point. Second, you confuse a weakening belief in the current way of organizing religion with giving up the essence of religion. While this may be happening in Europe it is certainly not happening in other areas of the world. Atheism has not made great strides in convincing folks that matter is all there is. In fact there have been major defections in atheism like Anthony Flew. I would respect Atheism more if I saw it producing anything equivalent to the hospice movement, orphanages, hospitals, programs for the homeless, Habitat for Humanity, free medical care, efforts to end drug addiction, and the list goes on and on. It focuses more on how dumb others are rather than trying to change anything significant.