“I really want to see you Lord but it takes so long my Lord.” — George Harrison
Of course, the irony of using this particular song is not lost on me. Harrison was sued for copying the music portion from an older tune. According to tale, when asked whether he had copied it from one particular tune he openly admitted that he had in fact copied it from the one mentioned. Oh well….
Yesterday’s piece inspired some discussion on another site, so I thought I would further the discussion here. In today’s piece we will explore more of the global impulses rather than the personal. In some circles, Christianity has an image problem and it’s one that needs to be addressed.
One of the things I mentioned on the other site is the inescapable fact that church attendance and membership is dwindling nationwide. We noticed this at my the parish where I grew up. We suggested to the pastor that he conduct a kind of survey or exit interview with those leaving the church. Why are they leaving?
His response was to deny that this was really happening. Somehow, people were moving out of the area in spite of overall population growth or stagnation. So, if the population remains the same in your immediate area and is growing overall when you consider surrounding communities then the population at your church should also stagnate or grow slightly. This is basic logic.
Yet, this is exactly what happened. The church population had cut in half from the time when I was a kid. The response is usually to do something drastic. People have short attention spans and they just don’t believe the same stuff anymore. At least that is what the prevailing thought is. With the numbers leaving, I’m sure there are any number of combinations. I’m sure the multitude of activities available is a drag on church attendance.
However, the truth is simpler than that. I have no data to pinpoint this, but I’d speculate that there are just as many basic believers as there has ever been. There are a healthy number of people that find the notion of a God (benevolent or otherwise) to be ridiculous. These are the folks that list “flying spaghetti monster” as their deity of choice on Facebook. Faith is a personal choice that cannot and should not be questioned.
Yet, I think the majority of people that have left see what Christianity has become in many churches and simply can’t reconcile it with the God they do believe in. Maybe that Christianity has prodded them to treat others as somehow less than human. Worse yet, some might be forced to feel less than human themselves because of a lifestyle they feel called to lead.
To put it most simply, church membership has its advantages and disadvantages. Sadly, for many the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. It would be similar to the running group I joined years ago (when I still could run). It was easier to train for marathons in a group than individually. Faith journeys are much the same way. Millions are still comforted by the community they enjoy and the feeling of family that comes from belonging to and participating in a church. With all families and groups come issues beyond the beliefs and practices of the group.
Years ago when I served on the pastoral council of my church, our pastor had us read one of those inspirational/leadership kind of books group read all the time. As usual, most of the book was repetitive nonsense, but one kernel fell out. The author postulated that churches have a window of opportunity where members feel energized. They want to be involved and reach out. Sadly, the opportunity passes for the majority without action from the church.
The saddest thing in the world was watching this phenomenon happen in real time. Individual groups within the church would complain about lack of volunteers. People would sign up to volunteer and never be contacted. I know this because my wife and I were one of them. Just as the author suggested, the opportunity came and went.
This came to a head on the council when someone suggested that we need to be more welcoming. It seems easy enough. That devolved into a discussion about forming a committee to study how we could be more welcoming. I and others shook our head and just said, “why can’t we just be more welcoming?” I think the notion was lost on the pastor.
Maybe there are more things for churches to compete with for attention. That doesn’t mean that churches have to make drastic changes to what they believe or preach necessarily. However, they should reconsider who Jesus was and what he taught. They should reconsider how he lived his life and what exactly we are called to do and to be. The vast majority of people want to belong to a larger family than the one they currently belong to. They just need to feel like the church family is one worth belonging to.