Everything I read of late tells me the church is dying. Americans no longer go to church, they say. Twenty-five years ago, 70 percent of us identified with a local religious body. Today, that number is down to 47 percent, a rather precipitous drop. Post-pandemic attendance continues to diminish. Are the church’s days numbered?
I was reading an article last week that said people are no longer attending religious services, but they are reaching out for the help of a spiritual director or pastoral counselor. Since my doctorate is in pastoral counseling, this should be good news for my profession. And the truth is that my clients, most of whom do not go to church, do have a keen interest in spirituality. However, what I can provide as a pastoral counselor is not what a person can gain from regular involvement in a religious community.
The church is the only institution whose main purpose is to do life together, search for meaning together, celebrate life’s milestones of together, and band together to care for others. Other institutions might cover one of those bases, but the church is the only one that covers all four.
We ask a lot of the church, and it never quite lives up to the task. The church is messy. The church I serve as a pastor, Left Hand Church (more about that in my next post) is every bit as much of a mess as any other church. When you bring people together in a voluntary community, it is going to be messy. You hope everyone will muster the strength to live authentically, but often it’s only an aspirational goal, not a reality. It’ll always be that way when you live in community with other messy, self-absorbed, avoidant humans. And yet, here we are, after 2000 years, and somehow against all odds the church still stands. Empires come and go, but the church stands.
Yes, the church has to reinvent itself for every generation, because the world is in a constant state of change. But through the changes, some things remain. They are to love God, love neighbor, and love yourself. And you can’t do the first two very well until you’ve learned to do the third.
The church is where we celebrate the milestones of life, be it births, weddings, funerals, the solstices, or some obscure religious celebration known only to one’s peculiar tradition. (Ever hear of the Cane Ridge Revival?) As a pastor, it is an honor to perform weddings, funerals, baby dedications, baptismal services, and be present for every other milestone of our communal lives.
I particularly love preaching for Christmas Eve and Easter. Nicole likes Pentecost and the first weekend of October, when in the tradition of St. Francis, we bless everyone’s animals. Kristie always preaches during Pride month, and for Palm Sunday. I love that the church is the place that celebrates all of life’s comings and goings.
The church is also a place in which the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Individuals come together and miracles happen. The first wave of the Civil Rights Movement would never have taken place without the church. The abolition of slavery would never have happened without the concerted efforts of the church. Today’s church, at its best, focuses on the needs of refugees, immigrants, children, the LGBTQ+ population, individuals with disabilities, women, the economically disadvantaged, and a plethora of other people groups that have been marginalized.
Governments exist to meet the needs of the citizenry. Corporations exist to benefit their shareholders. Schools exist to educate students. The church exists to do life and search for meaning together. The church exists to celebrate the moments of our lives, and to join in common cause to produce the miraculous.
If the church didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. There is no other institution that does everything the church does. Church attendance might be down, but the church will be just fine. If we haven’t been able to kill it in 2000 years, we’re certainly not going to be able to kill it now.
And so it goes.