As with many congregations throughout the country, this past Sunday marked the official beginning of our church year. There was a larger crowd than the week before. There was Sunday School, so the kids were back. It was nice to see everybody. It was nice to have the community back together after a long summer hiatus.
Now, when I say "everybody" I really mean slightly under half the active adult membership and slightly more than half of the kids. The others were busy. Many of them were on the road to one of the many games their children play in travel leagues. Some of them were working from either their home or office. Others were at dance or music lessons. A few might have been sleeping in or on vacation, but for the most part, this was not the case. In suburban America more and more individuals are finding that cultural requirements draw them away from houses of worship, not toward them on the sabbath day.
I have been thinking about this phenomenon for some time. It is hard not to. My colleagues and I keep trying to find ways to keep in touch with folks. Belonging to church is not like belonging to the public library. We are concerned with your spiritual life and health. We are concerned with the state of the world. We are concerned about the way we are living our lives unsustainably, wearing out creation and wearing out ourselves. In Burbania it has become harder to feel joy, harder to love, harder to come to terms with our own suffering, and harder to feel empathy toward others. I believe that faith communities are essential to our humanity and I grieve that that they are not utilized as much as they should be.
Honestly, I think that the church as we know it is dying. I believe that, in some sense, those of us who remain dedicated to our congregations aren't churches at all, but instead closer to monasteries. No, we don't shave our heads, fast, and live in groups, but there is some power for us in this metaphor. In the past, when church was required in the same way that travel team is required today, the people who went to church weren't necessarily all that interested in what was going on. They were just there because they had to be. Those who were interested in religion would develop other communities--not just monasteries--in which to pursue their interests. Maybe they wouldn't meet every week. Certainly most of them weren't planning on dedicating their lives to become professional ascetics! But they would seek wisdom in a supportive faith community.
Now churches are among those communities. The people who are not interested are not coming. They aren't even making scheduling allowances for those who are! Except, of course, at Christmas because they like carols and candles as much an anyone else. They are not, however, part of the congregation in the way they used to be. These special services (like Christmas Eve, which I love) are a ministry of the church to the community at large as much as to ourselves. We know that the extra faces will vanish next week. Ice time is at 10am.
There is a lot that is good about this, actually. We probably have the same number of folks interested in the great themes and questions that life throws at us as we used to. Really its the bored people who are gone. Also, we are now, like the monastery, placed against and outside the dominant culture. We don't have to compromise as much as we used to. We don't have to pretend or, by our symbolic presence, support norms with which we disagree. However, there are problems as well. What if there are people who need us but do not know how to get in touch? What if we cannot get our message out into the world in the way we used to? After all, those people who had to come? They learned something from their experience. Now people place their ideas of "church" upon us, make their judgement (and their excuses) and leave us alone. Some of them need us and do not know it.
The question, for those of us who love the church is how we can adapt it to this new reality. How do we keep in touch? How do we maintain and grow what are naturally smaller communities when the push and pull of society has so altered our traditional ways? We are an intentional community but many of our members have their good intentions thwarted. Worship as an entire congregation is a thing of the past. Yes, I have church on Sunday morning but I don't expect to see many more people than I did last Sunday.
So we are monasteries or congregations or churches re-imagined. Maybe we need another name. We certainly need to adapt to the "new" (it isn't all that new) situation. We are not what we used to be even though we often act like we are and lament our failure. I ask again. How do we change?