Throughout human history, we have been defined by the sense of community. Early humans wandered as tribes. Then with the advent of agriculture, the fixed nature of farming created settlements, villages, and eventually towns and cities. One of the most profound keystones of community were the houses of faith. The creation of the congregation, parish, and synagogue created a place where people shared a common faith and belief, where the community gathered at least one day per week. The church became, in effect, the community itself.
Births, deaths, and everything in between revolved around that building and that community. Even once life had concluded, many went to their eternal rest in a cemetery in the churchyard. For centuries, the church provided the framework of people’s lives.
My memories of early childhood are all rooted in that church community. My father was a minister, so we spent a lot of time there. We attended Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday nights, and a couple of nights per week some other kind of gathering, usually more social. I had two separate groups of friends; the secular group from school, and the boys and girls I ran with at church. While I never understood a single sermon, I did understand the warmth, acceptance, and safety that I found when we gathered together.
We carried that through into our adult lives, hauling our sometimes recalcitrant children along on Sunday mornings. But as they grew into their adult lives, they also grew away from the church.
Among their generation is a deep distrust of institutions, both religious and political. Where I found sanctuary, they see only hypocrisy and scandal. They are all very principled, moral, and upright adults, who have simply decided that the brick-and-mortar church is not for them.
In the context of their lives, I understand that attitude. It still makes me a little sad, but I understand. While I would like them to be a part of a faith community, I know that this is their lives to lead, their choices to make. I raised them to be independent thinkers. Of all the parenting mistakes I made, at least I got that part right.
I am currently serving my second tour as a lay pastor. In both churches, I could see in our population the older folks (now MY age…) and a vanishing number of young families and their children. The folks representing the age gap in the middle have almost completely disappeared. This is a serious trend, and I’m not the only small church pastor to fret over that. It was traditionally from that age group that the future leaders would spring. It was from that group whose families would become the lifeblood of that congregation. When I have the opportunity, I ask them why they don’t come anymore. The answers are varied, from, “Sunday is the only family time we have during the week,” to “I just don’t feel anything there anymore,” or “I’d rather sleep in on Sunday.” At least the last one was honest.
A community of people lives and breathes on fellowship, that warm interaction so necessary to this social animal called “human.” I also get the remark, “I don’t get spiritually fed.” Fellowship is not just what we get from others, but what we give of ourselves. Each person in a community brings their own brand of seasoning to the community stew. It may be humor, knowledge, wisdom, or something as yet undiscovered. When that person is absent, or is never there in the first place, the community is denied the benefit, and the blessing, of that person’s gifts. What the missing millennials also deprive the community of is their youthful sense of vigor; idealism. And the sense of the possible.
A number of years ago, I was given a preaching assignment at a small congregation in south central Missouri. They were meeting in a storefront on the town square, and it being a nice day, I rode my motorcycle. I arrived at the designated place around 9:30, but no one was around. Shrugging, I took my sermon notes out of the saddlebag and began to review them. The minutes ticked by and still no one appeared. Eventually, the local Sheriff’s deputy began to take an interest in my unusual presence. He circled the square a few times before stopping. He got out of the cruiser, came over and asked me what my business was. I’ve never gotten over the tendency of some people to think that everyone who rides a motorcycle must be a gang member of some kind. On his request, I passed over my driver’s license and included my priesthood card as well, explaining why I was there on that quiet Sunday morning. Satisfied that I wasn’t a Hell’s Angels member there to wreak havoc and spread fear, he smiled a little sardonically, glanced over my shoulder at the still-empty space, and remarked, “Well Parson, it looks like you don’t have anyone to preach to today.” We finished our business and he went on about his business. I stayed until 11:30, and finally deciding that nobody was going to show, I got back on the bike and started the 90-minute journey back home.
When I got back, I called the district president and reported my experience. He made some phone calls, and when he got back to me, it was with a sad tale to tell. I had been there before, and knew that the members were few and aged, the youngest one around 80 or so. As it happened, late that week, the Pastor took ill and had to go to the hospital. Three of the ladies had moved into an assisted living facility, and the last two members had passed away in the previous two weeks. The congregation, which had existed for the better part of a century, literally died away.
That memory has never strayed far from my consciousness with regards to the future of any church. I talk to a lot of other pastors, and hear the same sad story. It seems that the only churches that are flourishing these days are those that are delivering entertainment along with the sermon, and a guarantee that attendees need only show up, and will never be asked to help out.
This situation is known as a “shifting paradigm.” The church context I grew up with, the one that had remained constant for more than just a few centuries is fading, to be replaced by a less structured, more casual model. Or in some people’s cases, to nothing at all.
Perhaps it is possible to lead an upstanding moral life and never see the inside of a church. But people are being deprived of that sense of community, of shared belief, and of safe harbor in times of trouble. And of a place where their gifts and talents could be a blessing to others.
I can’t help but wonder if that loss is really worth a couple extra hours of sleep.