New year, new people in the pews (a couple) and perhaps a new chance.
I’ve been thinking about the decline in the churches in the United States lately, its not an obsession, but it is a thing that bears some analysis if it is to be defied, or even (dare we ask?) reversed. With all of my highly refined analytical skills I have come upon a couple of ideas, diagnoses, if you will, about how and why.
I warn you, you may not like what I’m about to say. It may actually be about you to some extent, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
There was once a time when churches operated on the “If you build it they will come” model, out of Field of Dreams. To some extent this is still the case in the Midwest, though they are finding it less and less true as time goes on. Christianity was the dominant religion, indeed the dominant force in Western Culture and the truly human desire to be with people like themselves led to their being a church of your particular preference somewhere within driving distance.
Even within the “people like themselves” model there was room for negotiating, why else are there five Lutheran Churches here in Santa Rosa? This town is just about the right size for three churches, maybe four if this were a really faith-heavy ton. But it isn’t. But we have them because of the desire to be with people like us, and as finely as we can draw those distinctions, we will and we’ve drawn them into five these days.
But as good as the church was at catering to the individual needs of the various communities that once populated our landscape, somewhere along the line we decided, as a culture, that we were done adjusting, we had achieved what we wanted to give the world and to some extent stopped looking out our doors for the people who were not attending, stopped asking what they were thinking, stopped trying to make ourselves heard.
Sure, we adopted new “styles” of worship, new vestments or abandoned them completely, we printed new hymns and hung screens from the ceiling to make the church look for all the world more like the living rooms of the people we were trying to attract.
But here’s the thing, they all already had living rooms, and we couldn’t customize ours enough to be better than theirs and besides, what we were doing was trying to get them to come and be like us, as if we had all the answers, as if being like us was the best thing of all to be.
We are blessed, and we do have faith which everybody does need for salvation, but it is almost as if we began to think that they owed us their attendance, and we’d chase them around with worship styles and musical come-ons instead of doing the hard things.
Instead of listening.
We changed the drapes and painted the walls and then tried to sell the same old house when people were buying condos, then put in a hot tub and a rock garden when people were going for barbeque decks and three-car garages.
Since we had salvation, we didn’t think to ask what the people needed and instead only tried to given them what they wanted in the very same way that Madison Avenue was using. The problem is, Madison Avenue has an almost unlimited budget and no conscience to speak of so trying to play their game has left us where we are now, or worse; if we shut our eyes to the changes all around us and just sailed by like we had it all figured out and it was their problem to figure out how to find us, well then we’d end up in pretty nearly the same state.
But it is never too late to say I love you. It is never too late to show that God loves them either, we just have a language barrier. Maybe we’d be better served calling it a knowledge barrier. We don’t know our neighbor much anymore. How then can we love them as ourselves?
We need to keep doing what we do best. We need to keep loving and forgiving and hoping for a better world and then working to build it. We do not surrender an inch of what we are and who we are and why we do what we do.
But we need to do it for the sake of them. Not for the sake of ourselves, we confess that we are saved and are freed from the pains of sin and death and so want for nothing, so why do we keep trying to lure people into the church so that they can save us?
Well, new year, new people in the pews (a couple) and perhaps a new chance.
We need to rediscover why it is we love going to church, why it is that we love this church and then learn how to say that out loud, to people we’ve never met in places that make us feel out of place, and uncomfortable.
Outside of our comfort zone is where we need to be. We’ve spent too much time inside of it and it has not borne the fruit we have been called to bear. Lets break free, get challenged, get moving and just get on with it. There is a whole world out there and our voice ought to be heard there, we have a message, and a vision that the world needs to hear.