A few years ago as I was rummaging around in the Old South archive (a large, fireproof file cabinet in my office), I came across an old Old South newsletter. At the time, the newsletter was called The Old South Messenger (it is now called The Chimes). This particular issue of The Old South Messenger featured, on the cover, a photograph of a young girl, looking forlorn sitting with her chin in her hands and a long, frowning face. The caption read, “I wish mother would take me to Sunday School.”
Inside the newsletter, there’s a prominent box with the words “Too Busy” and, in that box, this bold statement appears: “Too many people try to satisfy their conscience by saying, ‘Too busy to go to church.’ This is an old excuse that is so out of date that it ought not to have any place in our lives.”
Any guess as to when this newsletter was published? Sometime in the 1980s? 1970s?
Not even close. The date of publication: September 1923.
Many of us in the church seem to believe that the lower than desired attendance that we are experiencing is a new story. Yet, it is not. We think that the current declines are an anomaly that we must endure or conquer. Yet, what seems more true is that the full sanctuaries that many of us remember from the 1950s and 60s (my memory doesn’t actually go back that far, having been born in the 60s, but I am told that the sanctuary was full back then), that is the anomaly. In the great scheme of the life of the mainline Protestant church in Maine, the anomaly is the 1950s.
The fretfulness that most mainline church members experience is not only that our sanctuaries are much less full than they were forty, fifty, sixty, years ago, it’s that the great surge in mainline church attendance in the 50s was accompanied by expansions of buildings and physical plants. These larger buildings not only feel larger, and lonelier, when occupied by far fewer people. They are also a larger financial burden.
It’s important that good church people understand and appreciate the wider and deeper issues that they face. It’s even more important that good church people have perspective and a sense of the historical picture that goes back further than the 1950s. We won’t likely find many answers to our problems in the past and I can’t imagine that any of us would wish for the dynamic that changed the tide from the not so robust church attendance of the 1920s to the full sanctuaries of the 1950s—the Great Depression and then World War Two. But, we ought to feel a little less adrift when we look back at the last century and see ourselves as part of a larger drama, and to recognize that we share at least some of the same concerns and sentiments of the church of the 1920s.
With greater depth in our sense of ourselves and our past, we must also wrestle with a yet even more profound question: was the anomaly of the 1950s, when our sanctuaries were full, more about us, our message and the Good News of God that we professed, or was it more about the culture, and the push in the culture that people attend church? Is the anomaly of the 1950s a story about wonderful glory days of Christ or is it about a burden that led us all to fool ourselves into thinking that we were doing God’s work, when really we were doing the work of American culture and society?
More on that next week.