A Hidden Blessing
The times are a-changing, a fact underscored by two recent stories on different news services. However, to those who bemoan the loss of church as a socially-respectable, popular idea, I would say: this situation may be a blessing in disguise.
The first concerned a legal battle pitting the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston against a group of parishioners trying to forestall the closing of a particular parish.
The wrinkle to this story: despite dwindling attendance and finances, it isn’t just Catholics in the Northeast who are desperate to stay in church buildings.
Attached to Buildings
Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University’s divinity school, says Baptists have consistently been attached to their buildings. True in part, he says, because the earliest church buildings were in rural towns and commonly had cemeteries attached.
“You could look out the window and see where your grandma was resting,” Leonard said. “So the building carried with it the ethos of ‘we built this with our own hands, and certainly with our own money, and our previous generations are next door.’”
I understand the sentimental attachment to places of significance in people’s lives. Although no longer a member of the denomination I attended growing up, on a return visit to my hometown after both parents had died, I still went to church there that weekend.
After all, this was where I had my first Communion, my brother announced his call to the ministry, and where my parents’ funerals had been held.
By all measurements, the church in the West is in the midst of a decline and has been for more than a century, according to two historians I interviewed recently. Ironically, at the same time the church in Africa and South America is growing.
The current downtrend in church attendance reminds me of one of my favorite Yogi Berra-isms. The famed New York Yankees catcher (and later manager) remarked one time of sparse crowds, “If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you can’t stop ‘em.”
So it is with church. Attendance isn’t mandatory. A church consultant I know tells me that faithful weekly attendance is closer to 20 percent than the 40-some percent who tell pollsters they attend church regularly. “Regularly” being in the eyes of the beholder.
Stemming the Decline
About 10 days after I saw the story on desperate attempts to hold on to church buildings, I read another about a Pew Research study. It said the number of Americans who identify with Christianity has declined dramatically the past eight years.
The story quoted Sam Rohrer, president of the American Pastors Network, who noted the findings are evidence of the greater impact pastors and churches must have on society.
“In the early church, Christians ‘turned the world upside down’ because their faith in Jesus Christ had been put to the test,” Rohrer said. “And they experienced firsthand the transformative impacts of the gospel and unconquerable power of the truth of God’s Word. Our nation is in desperate need of pastors and Christians with the early church’s passion.”
This is where the blessing lies. While times may be tough for the traditional church, they also pose a challenge to every follower of Jesus Christ.
We can no longer be content with showing up for church on Sunday. We must make a difference in the world Monday through Saturday—even if some buildings disappear along the way.