Anyone involved in church work in a twenty-first century, Western, post-Christian context is familiar with the common trend toward declining church attendance (see here, for some figures from the American context). The story is a well-rehearsed one: people are interested in “spirituality” not institutional “religion.” Churches are places of lifeless formalism. And if churches don’t do anything for us, why bother with them? Why not spend a Sunday morning enjoying the outdoors or our kids’ sporting activities, or a quiet cafe and a newspaper, or… fill in the blank.
This morning, a friend passed along this interesting post from Sightings (a resource put out by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School). Here’s some of what Martin Marty has to say about the decline in church attendance:
Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters. Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences.
Very often, when discussing what we can do to boost church attendance or encourage those who come periodically to come more regularly, we hear some variation of, “let’s make it more convenient for people to come.” Whether that means having more services, moving church to Sunday evening, starting satellite churches or virtual churches with feeds from some main mother-ship, making church shorter, more exciting, more, gulp, “relevant,” or full of more varied forms of media, the underlying assumption is that we have to accommodate church to people’s tastes and preferences and schedules and desires and conveniences. What else would (could) we do, after all, in an age where people are increasingly uninterested in church?
Well maybe we could just keep being and doing church. Maybe we could be a patient and steady witness that it is not always church that needs to change for people. While it is true that self-examination must be a constant part of the life of a church and that “drab and conflicted congregations” are a very poor advertisement for the hope of the story we tell, sometimes it is we who need to accommodate to church. Sometimes our habits and assumptions about church need to be exposed and challenged and corrected. Perhaps church ought not to be something that we’ll get to if there’s nothing else on the schedule. Perhaps church ought not to be a place we go primarily for a shot of religious inspiration and entertainment, or a place where we can get a bit of morality into our kids. Perhaps church isn’t as much about us and what we (think we) need, want, and expect as we might think.
Perhaps we ought to keep some times and places open for sacred encounters.
Of course, sacred encounters cannot be manufactured or scheduled or programmed. But we can leave space. And we can make time. We can, as Marty alludes to, consider our habits. We may have to turn down the volume, we may have to confront our discomfort with silence, we may have to take our eyes off the screen, we may have to do any number of things. God knows, we often fill our services with so much noise and distraction and media. But it’s amazing how often, even amidst the chaos of a Sunday morning, there are sacred encounters. It might be a conversation, a line in a song, a prayer… It might be the sight of friends and neighbours all gathering together around the Lord’s Table. It might be any number of things.
But none of them can happen, if we don’t make space.