(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.

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 www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

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