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Silver Linings Playbook: Aging & The Christian Church

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

This morning I attended a mainline Protestant church that is only a brief walk from my place. It was my second time checking out this particular congregation, the first being on Passion Sunday, the week before Easter (stay tuned for a separate post about that). For a brief background, I grew up heavily evangelical for my first 20 years, and eventually I checked out, among others, Baptist, Missionary, Pentecostal, Anglican, & United churches. Then, after an emotionally difficult time as well as a lot of thinking, I realized I did not believe the major tenets of fundamentalist Christianity anymore. I eventually found the Unitarians, and was part of a vibrant, inclusive congregation in Kitchener, Ontario. However, I moved from the larger city to a much smaller one, where there isn’t a Unitarian congregation. So I thought I’d check out some Christian communities where I thought I might perhaps fit in. I attended Quaker meetings for awhile, and while there is much to be said for simplicity and silence, I need more stimulation. So I thought I’d check out this mainline Protestant church, where I’d find a more familiar structure, including hymns and a sermon. Here are some thoughts after visiting this particular congregation twice:

1) Right off the bat, I couldn’t help but notice that the average age of this church’s membership was at least 65. I’ll talk about this more later.

2) Even though this is a “merged church,” – two congregations of the same denomination in town came together approximately 20 years ago – there is still plenty of pew space.

3) The people there noticed me right away and many came up to me and made a point of welcoming me and introducing themselves. Definitely a plus.

4) When it came time for the children’s moment, only 3-5 children were present.

5) There was virtually no one my age, & no young families.

6) The pastor, whom I had introduced myself to via email prior to my first visit, was very nice. I had the privilege of sitting down for coffee with him a few days later, and we had an excellent conversation about our faith journeys.

7) There is a coffeehour after the service – a must in my books. I stayed both times.

Having listed these things, I want to go more in depth. Firstly, I want to say that I do not have a problem with people who are 65+. In fact, I tend to relate to older people quite well. These people who faithfully attend on Sundays and for other church activities are mothers, grandfathers, they have worked hard their entire lives. They have seen parents, siblings, and friends pass away. Many of these men and women are pillers of the church.

Having said that, the first stark question that came to mind when visiting this congregation, and it has been the same when I have visited other mainline churches, is “Where will this church be in 25 years?” Actually, “Where will this church be in 15 years?” After the merger, there remains three churches of the denomination in this city of 40,000. And during each coffeehour, members expressed to me that there really only needs to be one. As a board member said to me during a very good discussion after church this morning, “At some point we have to say goodbye to our bricks and mortar.”

Obviously, if there are no (or very few) new prospective members growing up within the church, what will happen when the older generations inevitably pass away? I’m sure this is a question that is being asked in hundreds of congregations and in many many board meetings across this country and others. Already, if you take a leisurely drive through small towns or through the countryside, you will see the landscape dotted with abandoned churches, or churches once bustling which now only open their doors on a few occasions per year.

Many of these churches are trying to revitalize themselves. For instance, the church I visited is at the beginning of implementing a new mission statement. Now, while I believe that mission statements can make a difference if the leadership strongly models them and engages with their congregations about them, it is also a fact that almost every organization has a mission statement now, whether religious or not. I’m afraid that oftentimes, the new mission statement gets engraved on a plaque and is hung in the church foyer and there it remains. I truly hope this is not the case with the church that I visited.

I was impressed by this board member today, because she seemed to “get it.” She described a couple of outreach endeavours that the church is involved in, one involving working with an ecumenical group in town, and not just a Christian ecumenical group, but an inter-faith group. She told me that “people aren’t going to magically walk in and sit in the pews; we have to go out and reach them where they’re at.” Excellent point of view.

However, in business terminology, my question is: “What product do you have to sell this generation and upcoming ones, if you do in fact get them into the pews?”

I haven’t written much about my thoughts about the actual services. And admittedly, remember that this is coming from someone who was/is completely turned off by evangelicalism. It was the second Sunday of Easter, and the processional hymn was “Jesus Is Risen From The Grave.” Now, in the first couple of years after leaving Christianity, I would still sing the words because I’ve always enjoyed singing. Not anymore. Now, more often than not, the words that pop up from the page might as well be written in Sanskrit. I will not sing or say or repeat something that I do not believe. So, when the priest said, “Alleluia! Christ is risen,” I did not join the congregation in saying, “The Lord is risen indeed. Allelulia!” This was followed by a responsive prayer which contained phrases like “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts…that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name,” and “Saviour, you have come from heav’n above; on the cross you died to save us; now you reign at God’s right hand.” (As a sidenote, and I think an important one, imagine being a completely unchurched person coming in off the street – which isn’t a stretch seeing as how we live in a post-Christian world. How would one make sense of it all? The prayer was followed by the priest saying, “Lord have mercy,” and the congregation responding “Christ have mercy.” I must confess that all I could think of when I heard this was Uncle Jesse from the old family sitcom Full House, utilizing his best Elvis-impersonator voice.

After a couple of scripture readings, the pastor, who is a passionate and caring man and clearly cares about his flock, delivered a short homily about the new mission statement and how they are trying to revitalize the congregation. This was followed by the weekly recitation of the Apostles Creed, which I stopped saying long ago, and which was put together by a certain group of men many many years after the life of Jesus. I won’t copy it in full here, but it affirms the virgin birth, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This segues into the “Confession & Absolution,” where congregants get to confirm, on 52 Sundays a year, that “we have sinned against (God) in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” That about covers it all. This is followed by the symbolic eating of Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood (something that increasingly confounds me, not to speak of an unchurched person). After a few announcements and another hymn (which I get through by singing it under my breath in my best Bob Dylan impersonation), we headed downstairs for coffee and cake.

So, after all this, why are many of these churches in serious jeopardy of closing their doors?

A beginning quick observation is that many churches (and now I am speaking generally) become inwardly focused. They can become so engulfed in holding their annual bazarre or expanding their parking lots, or simply trying to balance a budget, that they lose their focus, which ought to be community oriented (shouldn’t it?) Complacency is another factor. Some churchgoers become so comfortable simply attending Sunday services and shaking hands with the pastor or priest, and that’s all they want, period.

Let me digress for a moment and say that one of the first things I look for in determining the health of a church I am visiting is how many children and young families there are. To me, a church ideally should reflect society: all ages, all cultures, etc etc. This is not the case in many mainline churches. Now, this is not to say that every church which has a bursting Sunday School program or lots of young families is a healthy church. It could just mean that they are doing a better job of providing mid-week programs or indoctrinating their members. And make no mistake, many Christians are happy to go to church on Sundays, be told exactly what to believe and how to act, and very little else is expected or wanted. But there are an entirely different group of Christians out there who want to be inspired, engaged, both emotionally and intellectually. Unfortunately it often seems the case that many of these churches find it hard to stay afloat.

So, what is the problem? If committed, friendly churchgoers are generally wanting to see their church grow, why isn’t it happening in many cases? It’s not because they lack conviction. These are people who admire and seek to emulate the values of Jesus. Read that again. Most of these people admire and want to emulate the values of Jesus.

And this – ONLY THIS – is what will connect with the younger generations, in an increasingly unchurched, post-Christian society. Somehow, somewhere in their history, many churches have forgotten that what really engages people’s hearts is Jesus’ message and example of compassion, humility, community, forgiveness, and love. As more and more people are engaged in biblical scholarship, they (we) find it increasingly impossible to believe in the Jesus myths that were written about him decades after his death, slapped into the Bible, and declared God’s holy word. The church must face a growing humanity that simply does not believe that Jesus died for their sins, because we know that we are an evolving species, not a “sinful” or “depraved” one. People everywhere are tapping into their spiritual nature, and crave lovingkindness and joy, rather than frankly unbelievable stories about resurrection or men living in the belly of a whale. So many spiritual people want to embrace a community where spirituality and science are not exclusive of each other. Just because something is a myth does not make it necessarily untrue; there can be lessons learned from many Bible stories. But even back in the days of the early church, many believers did not take these myths literally; they were but one way to get a point across.

What to do today? How can limping churches re-engage society? Some Christian leaders say “stay the course” or they make moderate changes that end up failing. Others say that we should keep reciting the ancient language and creeds and simply learn to reinterpret the myths. However, I agree with Christian leaders such as Bishop John Shelby Spong and Gretta Vosper who say we must create and walk into a whole new Christianity, without all the cultural, historical, and linguistic barriers.

But in the end, it’s really not a new Christianity at all. It’s the good ole original kind, featuring a humble Jew who inspired those around him by speaking of compassion, service, humility, and love.

That, my friends, is what society desperately needs and is looking for.

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Review & Commentary