Sorting by

Skip to main content

For the past month I’ve had the opportunity to chat — or is it snap? — with my daughter Jenna as she journeys along the Camino Frances. These conversations have filled me with joy as I hear her stories which also bring back such great memories of my own pilgrimage on the Camino last summer. 

Jenna just graduated from Calvin University and is about to begin her career as a nurse in an Emergency Department. I was shocked when she called and said that she wanted to hike the camino alone in the month between taking her boards and beginning her career.

I said “Alone?”.That’s not Jenna.

She said she wanted to take time and think about where she has been and where she is going. After reassuring grandmas that she would be okay, she was off.

Over the next month she has reached out occasionally. Sometimes it was just to just tell me funny stories about “old dudes” snoring in her hostel or when she was looking for advice on where to eat supper. Other times she just needed to cry as the pain of the blisters on her feet made her question whether she would make it another day. I listen, and when I can get a word in, I simply say, “Just keep walking.”

She sends me pictures of churches she visits. Small chapels to large cathedrals enter my inbox. They are beautiful. I wonder if this pilgrimage will reawaken her love for the church? I wonder if she’s just trying to humor her pastor dad?

The irony is, while I too saw the beauty in so many churches on the Camino, they also were the most unsettling. Since my return from sabbatical, people have asked me “what did you learn?” I learned so much about Spain, people, history, and myself. However, asking the question of what I learned in the context of the church can be summed up in four words. . . The Church is Dead.

As I hiked through Spain, my pilgrimage meandered through countless villages which were welcome sights in the midst of the countryside. As I came into each town, I sought out two places: the coffee shop and the church. To my delight and dismay, in almost every town, the coffee shop was open, and the church was locked. Cathedrals, once the pride and center of each village, where daily mass was offered, baptisms were celebrated, first communions were marked, marriages were held, and funerals were officiated, now serve as run down cemeteries or nesting platforms for local storks. What once was the heartbeat of the city now serves as a museum of what was.

While some might describe this as a “Catholic” or “European” problem that is irrelevant for protestant churches in the USA, the data suggests otherwise. The decline is particularly evident in younger adults. Looking into the future, the church is in trouble. 

The church that I serve has not escaped this trend. Our numbers are stable, but more and more we are losing our college-aged students and young adults. While some of them are simply moving away or finding their own new communities of faith, we see many of them making church a lower priority or abandoning it altogether. 

My camino introduced me to many pilgrims who came from a variety of nations, cultures, and backgrounds. However, they were nearly unified in one thing, almost all had left the church. While they hadn’t completely abandoned God, they simply stated that the path to God was no longer found in organized religion.

Maybe it’s the abuse, the politicization, the power grabbing. Maybe we have abandoned the teachings of Jesus for a more convenient gospel. More than anything else, the church has become irrelevant. We talk about issues that others don’t care about. We spend our time arguing with each other, seemingly unaware that our people are fleeing out the backdoors as we continue to fight. Social media, gyms, and other communities have filled the vacuums left by the dying church as people still seek for a place to belong. The result is that denominations are imploding, and churches are scrambling.

Should I reimagine my role as a communal hospice chaplain? That would be noble, but it’s not really my calling. Should I just plow ahead as if nothing was wrong, waiting for society to come back? That seems like a waste of time. Should I just do something different altogether?

Or maybe is this an opportunity to begin to ask more questions rather than having all the answers? Is this a time to reevaluate where we might have drifted from the heart of the gospel and how we might navigate our way back? I certainly don’t have all or maybe any of the answers. Most of you are probably more well read and have better answers to these questions than I do. 

But for me, at least at times, it’s hard to not quit. I would except for the pesky problem that I just love the people I get to serve. So, for now, I will try to remember that we are on a pilgrimage, a purposeful journey, hopefully, to something better. For now, I will try to listen to the advice I gave my daughter in the midst of her tears even as I now shed mine.

For now, I will just keep walking.

# # # # # # #

Reformed Journal Book Club in July
Register now by clicking here.

Don’t have the book? Order it here.

Chad Pierce

Chad Pierce is pastor of Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.


  • Lori Witt says:

    “Just keep walking” and love people—that seems about right and very relevant. And Congratulations to Jenna on her graduation and walking the Camino!

  • RZ says:

    Thank you for this, Chad, a necessary discussion! You hit on two things that resonated with me.
    1. According to outsiders and young people, the church simply does not feel like Christ. Insiders are also echoing this sentiment.
    2. We all crave a sense of belonging. But it cannot be forced or coerced. That kind of church “reign” lasts only so long.
    I dislike the term “post-Christian era,” primarily because the presumptive “Christian era” was enforced by too much power, coercion, and tradition but not enough Christ, who rarely used enforcement except with the enforcers.

  • Tom says:

    We’ve had a different experience. In our travels in Europe and S America we often notice that Catholic and Orthodox churches are almost always open and there are almost always people there praying or meditating (or napping in the cooler building) , but not the Protestant churches. They are almost always locked up tight and open only for worship services. Certainly that is partly due to different theology but it also is sad.

  • Jean Scott says:

    Thank you, Chad, for verbalizing what I’ve been feeling; so many of our children and grandchildren, including mine, are finding the church to be a place where people do not really care for each other. Our demonization just proved that. Will there be a revival sometime? I hope so.

  • Doug says:

    I loved your description of the Camino Frances, Chad. It was similar to mine. With the exception of a remarkable priest from Chile, all of the pilgrims I met from around the world were quick to tell me “I’m not religious” or “this isn’t some sort of Catholic thing for me.” And yet – this was what was encouraging to me – they willingly, even eagerly, participated in the rites and rituals along the way. They were yearning for something, but not the church I have spent a lifetime serving.

  • Jim Loomis says:

    Keep walking the same path, and you will keep getting the same outcome.

  • Ben Dykstra says:

    Just keep walking. This is my church journey at this time. As a senior man I struggle to see how the church will remain relevant to the next generations. As a whole I think organized religion has lost its way. We need to get back to the heart of the gospel. Live and love like Jesus taught us.

  • Barbara J. Hampton says:

    Many blessings on you, your family, and Faith church, Pastor Chad.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    When I joined the Douglas UCC church I told my fellow joiners the reason why was “because this is the first church where I feel fully welcome and affirmed as a straight guy.”

  • Kellie says:

    I love that.. “just keep walking” with eyes open, ears listening and prayers to emulate the heart of Jesus.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    So many overlapping parts of life. My son just graduated from Calvin and is starting his nursing career next week. He didn’t hike the Camino but we are finishing a trip to Italy as a family tomorrow.
    Just keep walking reminded me of “Just keep swimming” … thank you Dory and Pixar. Sometime that’s the best we can do and the best we can do is enough. Thank God for grace. And our well-being in the end is in God’s hands and not our own, at least not fully in the ways that matter most.

  • Ken Kuipers says:

    My daughter’s school theme this year is taken from Matthew 6:33, “But seek ye first the kingdom…” In discussing this verse with her I shared one of the interpretations for the word “seek” used elsewhere in the new testament. I wrote her the following:
    One place that Zeteo (seek) is used in the gospels is John 16:19. “Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you “Zeteo” {asking} one another what it means when I say in a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me?” This is the most intriguing passage that uses the word for seek in that it includes a strong sense of wonder and mystery. In this setting it would seem very appropriate for Jesus followers to be discussing together the location and extent of Christ’s kingdom. It is appropriate for us to talk together to find what the best and most kingdom-like action should be under any circumstances. The kingdom is ‘here as well as not yet completely here’ so we can interpret the word “seek” to mean to tread carefully with much discussion when seeking the kingdom.
    I am not sure if this fits Chad’s sense of questioning, but for me it fits. We need to be wondering together about such things.

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for this, Chad.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Entered the ministry in 1985. All congregations in NJ. TBH it kind if feels like the church has had stage 4 metastatic cancer during my whole ministry. Some parts of the body (in these parts, in this denomination) remain somewhat healthy, But the rapidity of the decline – set against the backdrop of churches that go back to 1660 – has the flavor of not really knowing there was that much wrong, and being told ‘you have three weeks to live.’ There’s been joy and laughter, and all kinds of good and holy moments, but still, a constant fighting back against the inexorability of death. That said…..this is an account of life in the northern, western church. Some of my travels offer much more hope. Travels to non-western and or non-northern locations. It feels a bit too us-centering to say “the church is dead.”

    • Chad says:

      This is exactly right Paul. Thanks for this. This was part of a longer essay I wrote for my church leadership. In that I name North America. I should have made that clearer here.

  • Jon Lunderberg says:

    Chad, thanks for your insight as a pilgrim and a parent.

    If “The Church is Dead”, why is the Camino alive?

    Some day soon, I hope to follow in your footsteps. My Camino goals are to reflect on what I’ve done birth to date and plan what to do with the next third of my life.

  • Roger Allan Nyhuis says:

    Thanks, Chad! I needed that!

Leave a Reply