The Church Without Its People

In worship last Sunday morning, we had 35 people—a little lower than average for this time of year, but about average for the past several weeks. In the afternoon, though, we had more than a couple of hundred people in the sanctuary. For a funeral.

At Old South, funerals have become the big services—even bigger than Easter and Christmas Eve. For Sunday’s memorial, we knew that there would be a lot of people. The woman who died had family and a lot of friends. She had been an active presence at Old South until a few months ago when disease finally took the upper hand. And she was only 73.

As I gazed out at the assembled crowd, I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t recognize a lot of people. Although I knew a few of Judy’s friends, there were many I had never met. I was surprised, though, by the number of people I did recognize. There were quite a few people who are on the membership list at Old South, but rarely, if ever, attend worship. I see them at funerals, or the occasional wedding.

If I had a little more courage, I’d like to ask each of those people about their expectations for their own funeral, and services for their loved ones. My guess is that they expect that their own service, and the services for loved ones, to take place at Old South. But, with an average of 35 in worship on a Sunday morning, Old South won’t be around into the distant future.

This isn’t just a money issue, it’s also a time and energy issue. For those who expect the church just to be there when they need it, it’s time to get involved—before the crisis sets in. Churches don’t exist by some kind magic, just because they are tied to the Divine. They exist because of the care and commitment of actual, real human beings.

A few years ago, there was a Roman Catholic church in Waterville, just up the interstate from Hallowell, that the diocese had closed, tried to sell (but couldn’t) and then decided to demolish. A group of people gathered to protest and to try to “save” the church. Many of them remembered the church from long ago, many of them had attended mass there as children, had been baptized there, perhaps married there. They had fond memories. But, they hadn’t set foot in that church, or in any other, for a long, long time—except for maybe a funeral or a wedding. Somehow, though, the church was supposed to just continue to exist, without their support, as a monument to important family memories and a time when almost everyone in Waterville was a practicing Catholic.

At the reception that followed Sunday’s memorial, I spoke to many of those who only rarely attend worship at Old South. I heard it then, as I’ve heard it before, these people feel that Old South is “their” church. They feel badly that they don’t come to worship much, and many of them no longer have a good reason to stay away (their children are grown and out of the house). The say that they miss worship, the music and sometimes even the sermons! Although I encourage them to come to worship and tell them how much I would love to see them, I know that I probably won’t.

I can’t help a moment of despair: if I can’t convince people who already like Old South to come to worship and to engage its life, how can I convince anyone else? If people who already know about the church, and feel good about it, don’t come, how can we expect others to come?

Some of those who show up for the occasional funeral send occasional checks to support the ministry of the church. While I am grateful for that, I know that it isn’t nearly enough. The body of Christ isn’t a pile of cash and an empty shell of a steepled building. It’s bunch of human beings, working together, committed to the Gospel and seeking to support and encourage one another on the journey.

There is no magic wand that can be waved to keep the church in operation—its building or its ministry. Those who feel a connection to the church, and deep down inside expect that their very last service will be held there, must understand that it’s time to step up and to make the church a priority in their lives. The generation they have been counting on to keep it all going is beginning to pass away.

Church buildings cannot simply exist as monuments to memories or as funeral “event centers.” For a church to be a church, it must have a life beyond its building—and that life relies on a collection of actual, real human beings who feel a connection to that church and to the faith. It’s called the Body of Christ.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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