Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

More Thoughts on American Christianity

November 4, 2019

Thanks to Bernie (not Sanders!) for forwarding me this opinion article last month.  The author seeks to revisit the common notion of American Christianity’s drastic decline in the past decade and nuance that broad brushstroke description with some points that might alter the overall picture.  He makes three main points:

Lukewarm Christians are falling away in high numbers, but not more committed Christians.  I think this is very true, and I’ve seen other surveys indicating of those who worship at least once weekly, there has been practically no dropoff in numbers or activity over the years.  Hardly surprising.  Those willing to commit on a weekly basis to public worship clearly prioritize their faith and are willing to do so in tangible ways, such as their time allocation.  As Christianity (especially conservative Christianity) continues to become less and less compatible with cultural trends, there will be less and less incentive for nominal Christians to maintain their ties to the Church.

The decline in American Christianity has more to do with Baby Boomers than Millenials.  Also true.  The issues in the Church today began with the Baby Boomers.  They were the ones to first walk away from the faith or at least regular public worship in appreciable numbers, and this only made it easier for subsequent generations to either walk away or never affiliate in the first place.  I’m not sure I would agree with the author’s generalization that church attendance fluctuates by time-of-life.  Statistics seem to indicate that increasingly, those who leave the faith or regular worship as they leave home are not returning later in life.

The decline of American Christianity may be more of a Catholic issue than a Protestant one.  An interesting idea, and one that makes sense in light of the long-running abuses perpetrated, covered-up, revealed, denied, and now being called to account for in the Roman Catholic Church.  But whether or not the decline in affiliation and participation is more Roman Catholic than Protestant is unclear to me.  Definitely non-denominational and Evangelical churches have grown at the expense of more traditional denominational ones,  I still think there’s an overall decline in Protestantism as a whole.

Interesting also are his observations that there is still a strong enough Christian presence in America to forestall for the time being increasingly antagonistic anti-religious or anti-Christian movements and legislation.  Not an entirely optimistic observation, but something to be grateful for while it lasts!

 

Comfort Near Death

October 30, 2019

In seminary I remember being warned by a prof about the danger people can be in near death.  This may sound a bit oxymoronic – isn’t anyone near death already in danger?  Certainly this is true, but the gravity of the situation can be aggravated.

This happens by well-meaning doctors, nurses, and family members.  Wishing to spare the person additional stress, sorrow, or any other negative emotions, they deliberately mislead the person as to their condition, or the odds of their survival.  By telling lies they seek to bring the person comfort.  With good intentions, however, the potentially deprive that person of being aware of their condition and intentionally spending time making peace with God.

I’ve always remembered this, and I’ve tried to be straightforward with the people I visit at home or in the hospital.  When the understanding of those around them is they are near death, I try to specifically ask them if they are fearful or have anything they would like to confess or otherwise talk about.  I am encouraged by the faith of some who are ready to meet their maker, firm in the promises of Jesus Christ.  I am likewise encouraged by some who take the opportunity for a confession or question or discussion.

But they need to know their situation accurately in order to best prepare themselves.  This especially true as, more and more often, final hours and days  are spent heavily sedated and unable to engage in conversation.  The goal is comfort, but comfort goes beyond the physical to the spiritual.

I had an interesting discussion the other day where someone expressed a reluctance to trouble the people of our congregation with the difficult reality of our congregation – that they are almost all well into retirement age and beyond, and there is no younger generation of kids and grandkids behind them to take over the congregation when they are no longer able to run it.  When this group of people pass (and barring a miracle of the Holy Spirit), only a handful (literally) might remain, not enough to sustain things as they are and have been.

He felt it was inappropriate to trouble them with thinking about the future of the congregation beyond their lifetime, that it would be a source of stress to them and could result in some of them leaving the congregation.  He spoke from a position of empathy, personally having experienced the loss of a spouse, the struggle of long-term care for a spouse with debilitating conditions, and other very real struggles people often face as they age.  And I know many in my congregation do deal with these issues or have in the recent past.  While I can sympathize and empathize with them, I haven’t been through these struggles personally and therefore there is much I don’t know and can’t begin to imagine.  This doesn’t change the reality that I have been called to be their pastor and shepherd, but it does make me second-guess myself at times.

Which is more loving, to not talk about hard things with people already facing hard things?  Or is it more loving to be honest about the hard things and allow people the opportunity to grapple with them for themselves.  I have a high opinion of my members.  Some of them may be less vigorous now in age as they once were, but they have lived long lives through difficult times.  The Great Depression.  World Wars.  The loss of loved ones.  Challenging economic times.  As such, I credit them with a deep reserve of resilience – a reserve only heightened and extended by their faith in Jesus.  I’d rather honor their capabilities even when that is challenging and requires a lot of time and explanation, than simply not tell them everything soas not to add burdens to them.

And just like with visiting the seriously ill, most of the time there is an awareness already of the gravity of the situation.  We talk optimistically, but when reality is broached, most people are willing and able to respond to that.  I pray the same is true of my congregation and the future of the congregation.  I believe some challenging realities need to be faced and challenging decisions made.  But I’d rather give them all the details so they can make those decisions to the best of their ability, even if it’s challenging.

I pray and believe they’re capable of it, and I trust that through it all, God the Holy Spirit is present and more than capable of providing the strength and clarity needed to make those decisions, so they know they are ready for whatever the future holds, to the best of their ability, resting in the promises of our Lord who has conquered not only the physical death we each will likely face, but all the powers of evil arrayed against us individually and corporately while we yet live.  

I know I tend to expect more from people rather than less.  I like to think this is the better, more honoring thing to do.  But it might not always be, and I am grateful for those who challenge me to examine my way of approaching people and things to make sure it seems appropriate given the situation.

Church in a Box

October 29, 2019

So you want to start a church?  Easy-peesy!  Just order Church in a Box!

It will cost you anywhere between $20,000 and $100,000, depending on how big a church you’re starting, but they’ll provide you with everything you need (materials-wise, not personnel!) to do so.  Banners.  Audio/video equipment.  Coffee.  You name it, it’s included.

Assuming you have a venue, the people to do all of these things, and someone capable of preaching and teaching, what a cool way of one-stop shopping!

 

 

Religious Trends

October 28, 2019

Here’s another article about the ongoing trend of millenials  (those born between 1981 and 1996) away from religious life and particularly Christian religious life as defined by a corporate/communal worship service.  This isn’t anything new, but it does remind us that things are not changing, and are not going to change anytime soon.

The title of the essay is problematic, as there’s no exploration of why millenials are trending this way at all, other than a passing reference to being in the stage of life where family, finances, and career tend to overwhelm all other priorities.  But this is hardly anything new or unique to millenials.  Every generation has to balance and manage these demands during this time of life, and for far larger percentages of our population, this was done alongside (or perhaps more accurately enabled through) active, sustained, committed participation in a religious faith community.  Primarily Christian.  The Church.  This isn’t so much an issue with religion in general in America, but with Christianity.  According to this data, 70% of Americans consider themselves Christian (not including Mormons).  Non-religious make up almost 20%, which leaves only about 10% of the population that follows other religions.

So blaming the demands of work and finances and family doesn’t cut it as the reason millenials are no longer participating in churches as earlier generations did.  But the article does point out some of the ramifications of this change.

Yes, people are lonelier.  But let’s draw a few more tangible connections, please.  Loneliness is likely a high contributing factor to rising levels  of both depression and suicide.  More pertinent to this is the recognition that Christianity and the Bible offer something in very short supply these days – hope.  A reason to continue on in the face of periods of bleakness or sorrow.

The article also references lower levels of sexual activity among young people as another aspect of the pressures on millenials.  But what about some  deeper analysis, please?  Could reduced levels of sexual activity be linked to less attachment to Christian community and  a much decreased emphasis on the value and beauty of marriage?  Dating apps may be decreasing in popularity, but they are also being singled out as likely culprits for increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases.  And of course if traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality are being increasingly ignored, then the overwhelming prevalence of pornographic access at the click of a button with virtually no safeguards or obstacles also is likely to play a big part in changing levels of sexual activity.

Of course the article doesn’t deal with the biggest issue of all – as rates and levels of regular worship continue to drop, there is a very real risk (likelihood?) of people abandoning not just worship but the faith.  Rather than temporal mental health or social health, Christianity posits that what we believe has eternal consequences.  That’s not something most articles like this want to deal with or know how to.  The reality is that increasingly these people may not simply be lost to the Church for the time being, but eternally.  That’s a huge deal.

Millenials  aren’t coming back to church.  How many of them were really there before?  How many of them were raised in worshiping families where weekly worship was a priority, no matter how hard the work week had been?  How many of them were isolated from actual worship in youth ministry bubbles where fun and games eclipsed actual engagement with the Bible and Christian teachings, and where discussion of how faith applies to life were limited to purity rings and other one-off experiences?

We can look at lots of factors contributing to why young people are less and less interested in church, even if they still consider themselves to be Christian in some less-easily defined way.  But I think we need to include the Church itself in those factors.  Somehow, the faith was not transmitted to millenials (and the generations following them, don’t doubt it) in a meaningful and applicable way.  If most  younger Christians are essentially moralistic therapeutic deists, the Church has to wonder if it contributed to this tragic mistake?  If church is about being nice, can’t people get that other places?  School programs, work programs, TED talks, any number of other options.  What makes church unique if not the very message and heart of the Bible and Jesus and faith?

No, the youth aren’t coming back.  Not for a long time.  How is the Church going to adapt to this and plan to deal with it?  Especially given the reality the article notes, that collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?  And how does the Church attract a younger demographic that is going to see – and not entirely incorrectly – that a sudden surge in interest in evangelism is driven perhaps less by actual love of neighbor and more as an effort to prop up and sustain a model of doing church that is less and less sustainable as membership levels continue to drop?

Again, it should be noted: these are large scale trends.  There are (thankfully!) always exceptions to the rules, both individual congregations and even larger communities where this is not the case.  But it does mean that sooner or later these larger trends will begin to affect these places that may not really notice the change right now.

 

Missed Messages

October 26, 2019

I wonder if he would have left a message on the machine.

I wonder what that message would have said.

You don’t call a church at 8:30 pm on a Saturday night expecting someone to answer.  Frankly, anymore you don’t call even looking for service times and information.  Even Baby Boomers know to find that stuff on the Internet or through their mobile devices.  So I wonder what he would have done if I hadn’t picked up the phone.

As it was, when I answered, there was a short pause, a fumbling  to find the right words for an unexpected situation.  And then a simple confession.  I had an experience with God.  God touched me.  

Interesting, and not the normal lead off.

Why would He do that?

Very interesting indeed.  The man’s voice is cracked and ragged.  The sinful part of me wonders if he’s been drinking,  and that has driven him at this hour to pick up the phone and call a church.

That was 45 years ago.  But I feel it just like it was yesterday, like I was still in the car.  It’s that real.  I spent my life trying to figure it out.  I majored in religious studies at USC.  I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time.   Why did He touch me?  Would He do it again?  I need to get back to church.  I was raised Norwegian Lutheran.  I need to get back to church.

I can hear the sincerity, the reality of his questioning.  Why indeed?  Or why not, just as easily.  I talk about the Transfiguration, about those brief moments on a mountaintop that Peter wanted to stretch out indefinitely.  But Peter was told to shut up.  And then he and the others were led back down the mountain.  Into the real world again, as we like to think of it.  A place where the reality and touch of God can seem much more remote, and the presence and work of evil so much more palpable.

I need to get back to church.  

I tell him our worship time for the next morning.  I invite and encourage him.  But I doubt I’ll see him.  He reached out not expecting to find anyone, and he found someone.  The one touched by God now fumbling because he unexpectedly touched someone.  Perhaps he was unexpectedly touched back.  I pray he was.  That he does show up some Sunday for worship.  I encourage him that perhaps that is why God touched him so long ago, knowing that he would wander even as he sought God, that he would get lost in the maze of life while never forgetting that moment in the car when God touched him.  And that touch, so many years ago, maybe that touch was intended to draw him back.  To ensure there was a way back out of the maze and  into the arms of his creator and redeemer and sanctifier.

A way that maybe didn’t rely on an answering machine, but an unexpected dialogue.

 

A Desk

October 15, 2019

I inherited a very nice office when I accepted my current Call.  A large, dark wood desk with an accompanying side piece – I don’t even know what to call it – that has another large flat surface as well as cabinets above.  Both pieces have large, deep drawers with plenty of hanging file space.

It’s a beautiful desk – though I rarely see it because of my clutter.  I rally every so often to clear away the ministerial detritus which accumulates there naturally layer by layer.  There is a great – if fleeting – satisfaction to seeing the top of my desk.

But even as I admire it, I recognize it is not an ideal desk.  It is very much a desk of a different age, before the proliferation of devices and cables.  Phone and computer cords trail off of it in a rather unappealing fashion.  I could rearrange my office layout somewhat to compensate, but I don’t really care about it that much.  The multi-outlet surge protector lays on the floor beside it, also relatively unappealing aesthetically.

A desk for today would have options for cable management so they aren’t trailing across the top of it like anorexic octopuses.  It might even have a place for the surge protector to be mounted underneath, reducing cables across the floor.  And while large file drawers are still helpful, in this age of digital storage it seems somewhat superfluous.

It isn’t that the desk is bad.  It’s a good desk that accomplishes good things.  But it shows it’s age.  Not in terms of how it looks, but rather the functions it does and doesn’t incorporate.  The fact that wires and power outlets are more important these days than file folders doesn’t mean the desk was bad for its time, but rather a demonstration of how many things we take for granted also adapt in subtle or not so subtle ways to changing environments.

I was talking with a parishioner a few months ago who is trying to divest himself of his now-deceased mother’s furniture.  Lovely, sturdy, probably hand-made.  And yet despite being well-kept and lovely, he’s had almost zero interest in it.  Folks are more inclined to order something new and sleek off of Amazon, or take a trip to the nearest IKEA mega-store to pick up something full of contemporary functionality – even though it will never last as long as his mother’s furniture.  I love my desk, but the fact that I love it may not mean anyone else will.  They think of desks differently perhaps than I do.  We use the same word but have slightly different ideas in mind.

It isn’t that people are going to quit needing desks.  But they are going to look for different features in desks, and desks will increasingly adapt themselves to those needs and wants.  It shouldn’t compromise the core purpose and identity of a desk.  It isn’t as though desks will quit featuring flat tops to work on.  It wouldn’t be a desk any more!  But in other ways manufacturers will increasingly figure out and incorporate ancillary preferences and needs.  In the process, looks will change, although I have no doubt there is very fine, traditional-looking office furniture that provides for cable and power management and other modern niceties.

It’s probably time to clean my desk off again.  Time to admire the classic lines and finish.  I’m willing to deal with the minor inconveniences, but  I know others might not be.  I just have to keep that in mind, should I ever decide I want or need a new desk and want to sell this one.

The Skeletons of Faith

October 8, 2019

When people no longer see worship as a vital aspect of their life of faith, particularly the Christian faith, what do you do with the bones of previous generations who did see worship as integral, and invested their time and money in an infrastructure to  support it?  What do you do with the skeletons of faith, the church buildings no longer needed, wanted, or able to be supported?

It’s a serious question, one that is growing in relevance in America as it reaches epic proportions in Europe, where the skeletons have historic value and interest even if  their use to support the Christian faith has expired.

When congregations can’t keep their property any more, what becomes of it?  Some of the ideas are rather imaginative, as this collection of photos demonstrates.  Amazing that 9-10 of the places mentioned here – nearly a third of the places featured – are former churches.  Other ideas are less imaginative, as selling property to developers is often an attractive option to a congregation in order to provide legacy funding to a spin-off ministry or other related organizations in the area.  Cities are recognizing this as a potential challenge when real estate zoned for churches is no longer needed for churches.

Ironic that people who don’t care about churches or congregations do care when it comes to real estate.  And also interesting people presume congregations selling off their property have some sort of moral obligation to the community to repurpose their property as low-income housing.  The very title of the article is fascinating, implying that churches are somehow sinning by selling off their property.

Ironic, in light of our Lord, who said Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20)

On the flip side, the attractiveness of partnering with a developer to provide a much-needed cash infusion to sustain a dying congregation can indeed be a dangerous path.  The article quotes a development company president as saying “There are so many churches that say they have 500 people but only 35 show up on Sunday.  We can put them in a position where they can flourish for years to come.”  I suppose if you define flourish as you can stay in your building with declining membership for years to come, this is true.  Money is not the solution to the problem many congregations face.  Creativity is.  Unless a congregation is willing to dedicate the money it receives from redevelopment into new ministries, they’re only going to be successful in staying comfortable, not flourishing.  And the scary reality is, even if they’re willing to be creative, there’s no guarantee they’ll become the next big mega-church.  Statistically speaking, the odds are very much against them.

Another interesting note in the article quoted above is the statistic of more churches being founded in New York City.  How many of those can sustain a piece of property is a more specific and applicable question, and how does this increase fit in with what seems to me to be a surge in non-profit formations?  In other words, there can be more churches and fewer people.  I’m sure it’s not difficult to declare yourself a church, but is this equivalent to obtaining legal recognition of this via 501c3 status, for example?  The article seems to point towards this reality, noting that many of  the new congregations are store-front startups and small mosques.

The end of the article highlights a congregation that decided to allow redevelopment on their campus to provide affordable housing to their neighborhood, as a means of serving their neighborhood.  I question this approach, personally, while acknowledging it may make sense with the proper planning and precautions in place.  The Church is not a real-estate investment organization, nor is it a housing organization.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and needs to maintain this identity and function first and foremost.  People are always willing to take a good deal on rent or food or whatever else they want or need, but this is not the same thing as the Gospel.  There are a host of non-profits and city organizations and departments to help people with their human needs.  And while the Church can provide valuable ministry in this way also, it should never be separated from the Gospel.  If you provide a stranger with an inexpensive apartment but never build a relationship with that person where the Gospel can be shared, ultimately you have failed in your calling as the Church.  You have done what other groups and organizations might have been able to do, and failed to do what only the Church does.

The shake-out of declining worship attendance in our country is far from over.  And while many congregants lament it and look back fondly on prior decades where congregations were thriving, this alone isn’t going to change the cultural  relationship with congregations.  I pray there will be a return of the pendulum to a time of better faithfulness -and understanding – of Christian faith and practice in our larger culture, but it’s going to be a long time in coming.  In the meantime, it would behoove congregations to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

Worship Works

October 6, 2019

I presume I’m  not alone as a pastor in being human as well.  Particularly, that I’m prone to emotions, moods, and other issues that everyone else deals with.  The collar doesn’t remove me from this reality, and that reality is not limited to the six days and 22.5 hours every week I’m not leading worship.

This morning was a hard morning.  The emotions were stirring strongly, and they weren’t positive ones.  Frustration and anger – I couldn’t shake them.  Accompanying feelings of rejection and injury nipped at their heals.  I could work at keeping them at bay intellectually.  I could exercise self-control in ensuring they didn’t surface too visibly.  But they were there.  All morning as I made final worship preparations and then as worship began.  It’s a horrible feeling to lead worship when your heart isn’t in it.

But worship works.  It really does.  The historic liturgy of the Western Church – it’s easily dismissed by some as out of date but there’s a great deal of wisdom in what it  does and how it does it.  Reading, chanting, singing the Word of God together, and receiving his gifts in Word and Sacrament are healing.  Really, truly healing.  And by the end of the service, I was healed.  Not that those emotions won’t resurface.  I’m not any less human because of worship.

But perhaps, for a few moments during and after, I am a little more  fully human than my sinful emotions would have me believe.

Worship Apathy

September 30, 2019

A member texted me a link to this article on apathy for weekly Christian worship.  It makes reference to this original article in Christianity Today.  In both cases, I think the authors are making some fundamentally incorrect assumptions about worry over apathy for worship and/or disinterest in worship or prioritizing other activities over worship.

Yes, pastors talk about this a fair amount.  But almost always within the context of Christians, not non-Christians as both these articles seem to assume.  I don’t expect a non-Christian to see an issue with going to a football game or seeing Sunday morning as a great time for their child’s soccer practice.  The problem is more and more Christians are led to think the same way.

Yes, our culture is becoming increasingly unchurched, and this means not simply non-attendance but no actual experience with church attendance or the Bible or the Christian faith even in their youth.  Although a majority of Americans still claim belief in God, what this means is harder to pin down in any one survey.  But even among Christians, I’ve seen some survey results claiming “regular attenders” now means once every six weeks.

That certainly is indicative of apathy.  And apathy regarding Christian worship is something Christians have, not non-Christians.  Non-Christians don’t even think about it to begin with, as the Christianity Today article states.  But a Christian who thinks worship every month and a half is adequate does evince either a strong apathy or a complete lack of understanding of what Christian worship is for.  Or both.

This isn’t a new problem, as this article from a dozen years ago points out.  While this article points out some good reasons for a lack of regular participation in worship by Christians (priority conflicts, consumer mentality, etc.) it overlooks a pretty important one – why should Christians be in worship to begin with?

One could note that for at least 3500 years God’s people have been engaged in regular (weekly) worship.  That might seem reason enough for some folks, and while I’m inclined to agree, I agree only to the extent that this might be a reason Christians begin or return to weekly worship schedules.  It isn’t sufficient to keep them there.  Either they receive something when they come to worship they can’t get anywhere else which keeps them coming back and ensures they prioritize that time over other options, or they aren’t going to keep coming back or re-prioritizing their lives.

There are good Biblical, theological reasons for weekly worship.  No, the New Testament doesn’t set out a definition for weekly worship, in large part because that was assumed.  Early Christians were Jewish, and Jewish sabbath with worship was a weekly part of their lives.  It was just understood that following Jesus would also involve this sort of weekly worship.  After all, it was here, in weekly worship, that believers could be taught more about Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.  They could be encouraged and guided in how to live lives consistent with those realities, in anticipation of further promises to be fulfilled in terms of eternal life.  Believers could gather together to support one another and get through hard times together.  While it may not have looked exactly like this, it would have been just as intentional.  And here believers could be reminded of the source and nature of their hope as their lives here and now became increasingly complicated with increasingly widespread and violent persecutions.  In the company of fellow believers, the faithful also had opportunities to put their talents and gifts to work for the benefit of their entire community of faith.

Many in my congregation value gathering together for weekly worship because the congregation has become their family.  They genuinely enjoy getting together to see one another, an added benefit of regular, intentional community.

What do you receive in worship?

 

Back to the Future

September 24, 2019

Congregations in traditional mainline denominations are struggling with how to adapt to smaller and smaller congregations.  Thanks to Bernie for  sharing this article, relating how a married pastor couple serves five congregations between them in a return to an older form  of pastoral care and support in America, the circuit rider.

While some shrinking congregations close, and others merge together with another congregation, others maintain their history by sharing not a ministry per se, but a pastor.  This is more common in the midwest (at least in my denomination), where a single pastor may serve two or three parishes in  a rural area.  But even out here in sunny southern California, I know a pastor who now  serves two congregations just a few miles apart.   They aren’t willing to merge – yet.  But they can each survive a bit longer alone by paying for one pastor between them.

Along with pastors increasingly becoming bi-vocational, it’s one solution to a problem that isn’t going away any time soon, and is going to get more severe before it gets better.  Congregations need to face the future and begin actively seeking the best ways to ensure their congregation’s ministry can continue as long as possible.  The solutions will look different depending on context and a variety of other factors, but I much prefer this sort of creativity (even if it’s forced) as opposed to just closing up shop by refusing to change.