A few weeks ago, I encountered a conversation between two women at the gym. It was Ash Wednesday and both women were talking about how to get to church that day. They didn’t seem to want to go, but it was clear that they recognized that they needed to go, that they were required to go. How were they going to fit it in during a normal, busy day in the life of their families? And, even more than that, could they find a way to get to church just late enough that they could get those ashes rubbed on their foreheads, but then not have to be seen in public for the rest of the day? And, how about their children? How could they keep them from being seen in public with that smudged stain on their foreheads?
It was an interesting conversation to overhear. And, it’s similar to other conversations or comments that I hear, one way or another, from other people. I have a few families who have found their way to Old South over the last few years, but eventually they drop away. Life is just too busy. Church doesn’t fit anymore. And, more than that, the practice of religion has become the expression of a requirement, instead of an experience of spiritual refreshment.
I’ve noticed in my work in the church that people in the church generally explain away the ever-shrinking presence of people—especially people under the age of fifty—in church by observing that families have a lot more choices for activites on Sunday mornings than they once did. Sports practices, brunch, even grocery shopping are all available on Sunday mornings. Families do those things, instead of church.
What’s missing in this observation is that younger and middle-aged adults make time for things that are important to them, amid the myriad choices available to them. It’s not that the government requires that people bring their children to sports practices on Sunday mornings. Families make that choice.
The hard thing for those still in church to admit is that families are choosing not to go to church on Sunday mornings.
But, even as families make choices that either do not include church, or choose church only when required by the faith, I have observed in my conversations with people in the community—at the gym, at the grocery store, etc.—is that people do yearn for spiritual refreshment and spiritual connection. They just don’t know where to turn or how to fit it into their lives in a way they feels manageable.
I wonder sometimes if it’s time to set up a little spiritual drive-through window—a little something that will offer a little more convenience for those whose lives have become just too busy for worship on Sunday, or Saturday.
One of the biggest challenges for churches, especially mainline churches like mine, is to explore ways that we might offer spiritual refreshment that is both meaningful—and worthy of someone’s time—and manageable. And to do this without judgment.
This is hard, though, and we should admit to that too. For churches like mine, a congregational church that invites and expects the participation of the congregation, that values highly the central place of the ministry of the laity, we need to be open to—gasp—new ways of doing things and new ways of being church.
Our job is not simply to preserve how we’ve always done things, as if the church is like a museum, but to share the good news and to open our own selves—individually and collectively—to the transformative power of that good news.
We should worry less about the survival of our church buildings, and engage more in the health and vitality of the gospel in our midst, and to live, truly, as people who have experienced the joy and love of God.