It’s been a very different summer in my household. My wife is a Pastor, and has just ended a (twice-postponed, but much needed!) sabbatical. I am a member of the church she pastors, but it was obviously right for me not to set foot there during this time; they had work to do while she was away. So what to do on Sunday morning? I haven’t felt motivated to mask up and go to another church, even though church on Sunday is a lifelong habit. In the end, in the three months from June to August, I have only worshiped in church once; that was with friends in the parish church on Lindisfarne. There was also one time I worshiped on line with my family in their church.
Now here’s the thing: I haven’t missed going to church on Sunday, except for taking communion. That astonishes me, but it’s true. When I hear of the tens of thousands who have not returned to church after the COVID shutdown, I’m with them. The question for me is WHY? Why is going to church on a Sunday morning, the bread-and-butter of our walk with God for centuries, no longer helpful for so many of us? It doesn’t feel like my walk with God has withered. Here are my conclusions so far. Some of them will probably not be true of your church, in which case, count yourself blessed. Join me to figure out what ‘works’ or not, not only for you but for the generations below you. If you disagree, let me know why. I’ll just pick out three big problems, as I see them.
How we worship is a huge part of the problem. It’s 2022, but we still sit in orderly ranks of pews (or chairs – no practical difference) looking at the backs of others’ necks, while one designated man or woman does nearly all the talking. One name for that individual is a real giveaway: “Parson,” an old title which means they are the only ‘person’ who truly matters. So here we are in this out-of-date arrangement, and we try to cram all our encounter of God into that one ‘holy’ hour: worship, praise, intercession, teaching, even announcements (which in some churches can easily take up five or ten minutes of it). Many of us set other time aside for God during the week, either alone or with others, but if we don’t, what chance does the good news of the gospel, with its demand for a highly ‘against the grain’ way of living, have to become ingrained behavior? The other 167 hours of the week we are bombarded with contrary thoughts from the news, social media, TV and radio, advertising, work expectations, you name it . . . .
You can probably list other outdated features of this ‘holy hour.’ The way we do teaching does not match up with our 21st century learning style, although more churches are now using PowerPoint and other visuals. The music works for me, but not for most of the under-50s, and that is not just a matter of organ versus guitars. In fact, in the churches that are most likely to use guitars, keyboards and drums,
the music is often led by performers (!) playing to an audience (!) with songs designed to evoke a sort of ‘sugar high’ in worship.
My next problem is with Churches that make you choose. Are you evangelical (that is, focused on the written word, and the need for a personal encounter with God)? Are you catholic (you love sacraments, and a faith in which ‘the Word becomes flesh’)? Maybe charismatic (you worship, pray and reach out in the power of the Spirit)? Do you respond to the call to serve among the poor and work for social justice? Or do you find God in creation as well as scripture? The early church was all of those things, as were, at their best, the churches of the early British saints who inspire us in the Community of Aidan and Hilda. What has always drawn me most to this Community was that here I found all these essential pieces of the faith together. “But,” protested my wife, “No church is like that.” My point exactly.
Another problem with church-as-we-have-known-it is the lack of true fellowship. What is called ‘fellowship’ may not extend much beyond coffee and cookies after worship, plus activities needed to keep “the wheels on the bus going round and round.” True fellowship and brotherly/sisterly love as seen in the church in Acts is the exception. A quick test: how easy would it be for you to ask to borrow a fellow member’s car, or even hedge trimmer? How would they react if you offered the use of yours? To whom, other than hopefully your pastor or priest, could you confide your deepest thoughts and doubts?
Newcomers often leave a church after a while because they don’t make any real friends there. They don’t know how to break in to the circles of friends in the church, and those in the circles don’t know how to break open their surrounding ‘hedges,’ and may not even be aware the hedges are there. This is more and more important now, as we live in an age in which those in Western society are feeling more and more alone. “In his book, Social, Matthew Lieberman reports on a survey of people’s social connections that was done in 1985 and again in 2004. People were asked to list their friends in response to the question “Over the last six months, who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?” In 1985, the most common number of friends listed was three; 59 percent of respondents listed three or more friends fitting this description. But by 2004, the most common number of friends with whom you would discuss important matters was zero. And only 37 percent of respondents listed three or more friends. Back in 1985, only 10 percent indicated that they had zero confidants. In 2004, this number had skyrocketed to 25 percent. As Lieberman says, “One out of every four of us is walking around with no one to share our lives with.” [Article “The Lonely Church : Churches dying due to Friendlessness,” by Mike Frost in ‘Church Leaders’ blog site, January 8th, 2022.] True friendship has only become more rare since 2004.
In the Community of Aidan and Hilda we have always resolved to accept people from all different churches as we journey together in dispersed community. Is the day coming when some will not belong to any local church, and will draw support for their worship, fellowship and mission solely from the Community? How will we react to that change? How can we support each other as our local churches fail us?
Paul Martin (Long Voyager), St. Louis Park, MN –Explorer Guide, Regional Guardian.
For more information contact Paul Martin at this email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Submitted by Mark Condy – Pilgrim CofA&H
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