GET ME TO THE CHURCH (Gilmer County Times Courier 3/4/2010

You many have noticed that getting people to Services and church activities has become more and more difficult in the past few years. In the U.S., with the exception of some African American and Evangelical congregations, most Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations are in some level of decline (In Chicago, RC attendance has dropped by over 100,000).  Megachurches, once hyped as the future of Christianity, are losing members and financial support.

In desperation, many of my colleagues and I in all sorts of faith communities forgot the biblical warning of the folly of attempting to force new wine into old wineskins.  I still shudder at the recollection my attempt in the ‘70s to lead a “multi-media” Service using a tape recorder, slide projector, my spoken words and a young woman in a sari playing a sitar.  What a disaster.

As a parish minister for over 45 years, I’ve seen all the devices creative lay and clerical minds could conceive to turn the numbers around.  Bread and Circuses.  Guitar players, video screens, afternoon Services, out with “A Mighty Fortress” and in with John Lennon songs (few seem to notice he sang about the utopian ideal of having “no religion too).”  All, it seems, to no avail.

According to Martin Marty (online essay, 2/15/2010), much of the problem has to do with a term coined by H. G. Wells many years ago—“Everydayishness.”  The theory is simple enough.  Years ago most people had little to do on weekends but attend church, Temple or Synagogue Services.  “Everydayishness” simply refers to the filling up of that weekend time with televised super-sports, soccer, Little League, marathon races and getting the turkey smoker fired up in time for lunch.  For an increasing number of people, very rarely would any of these activities (or non-activity) have to give way to or even be worked around a worship Service.  “Sorry, Joe, Alice and the kids can’t go to the lake with you folks this weekend.  We have church.”  Nah.

Another part of the problem, perhaps needless to say for some readers, is that the experience at church or temple simply isn’t appealing.  The language isoften archaic.  The terminology indecipherable and untranslatable into the issues—even the spiritual issues—of contemporary life.  In short, the mark—the ordinary person living in everydayishness—the mark has changed and religion too often misses the mark.  The person at the barbie doesn’t even hear the ringing of the steeple bell.  It does not toll for them.

So, what’s the answer?  Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had a brief fling at the ministry in the early 19th century, spoke to the hopeful students at Harvard Divinity School saying, “And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smouldering, nigh-quenched fire on the altar…The question returns, What shall we do?”  Attempted innovations, Emerson said, were “pasteboard and filigree.” “Rather,” he said,  “let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.”

I leave it to you, your particular faith community and your religious leader to determine what bringing “new life” and “soul” to the communal gathering might mean.  I would suggest we start by asking ourselves what people of this era need in their lives of everydayishness and see if, in all objectivity and honesty, we are offering bread or a stone.

I will say this, that I believe that our failure to draw people from their
everydayishness into religious community has serious consequences for our society.  The late theologian, James Luther Adams, said “[the religious community] is where we go to learn how to be human.”

I believe we are living in an era of increasing inhumanity (inhumane treatment of one another), increasing meanness in the common life and certainly increasing meanness in the realm of politics where the aim has become to tear down others rather than to serve the needs of the people of the nation.

The Apostle James said, “By their deeds you shall know them.”  Whether we find new ways to bring the people to us or find ways to bring the message to the people (maybe Sunday morning is not the answer), I believe it is a primary task of religious communities in this era to do what can be done to teach Americans who are increasingly becoming “Ugly Americans” how to be more human, how to be civil, how to function for the good of all, how to actually live the values their religion teaches—in short, how to behave in the world like religious people.