What is church coming to, anyway? Back when I was in high school in the mid 1960s, everyone went to church. Sunday Schools were full, church youth groups had to find extra leaders and space and activities, you had to get to church early on Sunday mornings or there wouldn't be a place to sit.
Today? Well, for the former "mainline churches", now called the sideline or old line churches, things look very different. In many churches, most of the participants are gray-haired or almost so; Sunday Schools are small or non-existent; youth have other interests. And the preacher wonders if the job will last to the end of the year.
What happened? I have a small list of possible ideas.
1. Digital entertainment. It used to be that being a part of a church was a significant part of what we did for social activity and entertainment. Today there are so many other, and often more interesting forms of entertainment. DVD movies, cable TV, satelite TV, the internet. It's easy to stay entertained.
2. The scientific coming of age of our belief systems. I mean, come on, we all know that there isn't a place "up there" called Heaven. That worked before Copernicus dared to suggest that the three story universe (Heaven above, Hell below, earth in the middle) just wasn't a fact. That if anything, we're a tiny planet revolving around an insignificant sun in a back alley corner of our Milky Way galaxy which is only a teensy part of the whole universe. So why do we use hundreds of years old metaphors to describe something we know scientifically simply isn't true? It doesn't make sense to say "God is up there." Perhaps it makes more sense to describe God as "out there." Or to use the more intimate image of Paul, the Apostle, we are "in Christ, and Christ is in us."
3. The replacement of the church as primary caregiving agency. It used to be that the local church was the key social service organization in most communities. But today many things have taken its place: rescue missions, soup kitchens, social service agencies, domestic violence organizations. The "church as social service agency" has given way to a host of other organizations, and consequently has lost some of its reason for existence.
So what is a church to do?
1. Become a better entertainment organization? Many Bible churches have done just that, with fancy sound systems, and professional or semi-professional musicians. Get rid of anything that smacks of controversy and make people feel good.
2. Try to be the fundamentalist church of the past? Those churches exist too, which urge their members to cling to narrow and all-too-often exclusive beliefs that do not ring true for many modern souls of today. For those wishing things were more like 100 years ago, perhaps this works for them.
3. Be open to new ideas. Our Congregational Founding Pastor, John Robinson, made clear a powerful idea in a sermon he delivered to the Puritans as the Mayflower sat in harbor in England in 1620, about to journey to Plymouth Colony in the new world. Among other things, he said to his members, “I charge you before God…that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.
I like that. The Lord has more truth yet to break forth out of his Holy Word. We know when words ring true, whether they come from the Bible, the Koran, Shakespeare, Kahlil Gibran, the Sun Magazine's interviews or short stories, movies, good novels or the compassionate words of a friend. There are a lot of places where more truth breaks forth.
It seems to me that if we can unload our out-dated scientific ideas and metaphors except during poetic usage, and stick to the tough call to justice, equality, compassion and hospitality that Jesus urged, and be open to new expressions, new understandings, new perspectives of God and humanity, Christian churches just might be a bit more attractive to the 21st Century.
...just thinkin' out loud...