The Flight From Church

I was having dinner with some friends recently. Part of the conversation over our Mexican entrees involved the tale of a visit of a distant cousin, with whom one of my friends had recently connected. During the reunion of these distant cousins, the conversation turned to religion. Years ago, the Irish-dominated family was strongly attached to the Roman Catholic Church. But now, to the extent that these two women could figure, sharing information about the various relatives that each knew, not one family member is still attached to the Church. Not one.

Over the last several years, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the changing dynamics of the church, and what it means not only to find increasing numbers of adults who have left the church, but then to ponder the successive waves of generations, all increasingly disconnected from church and religion.

In this part of the world, the flight from church is clearly obvious. The Roman Catholic church building in Oakland, Maine has a large “for sale” sign out front. Just a little further north, in the town of Madison, the Congregational Church held its last worship service at the end of December (the building will become an “event” space for weddings, etc.).

I found myself thinking about the flight from church in a rather strange place not too long ago—at a local synagogue. I was at the bar mitzvah service for the son of a close friend. In this particular family, the mother grew up Christian and the father in a sort of culturally Jewish family. The family is not religious, although their older daughter flirted with Christianity for a while. But, the son decided, a couple of years ago, that he is Jewish, and that’s how his journey to become a bar mitzvah began—with a decision completely his own.

In the midst of the long Saturday morning service, I noticed that most of those in the congregation were guests of the family. Only a handful of the small, local Jewish population was present. The rabbi noted the significance of this young man’s decision, and the consequences of that decision—one of them being to support fully the tiny Jewish community in central Maine.

When children are raised in environments where they are “empowered” to follow their own path of spirituality, but the parents do not lead by example, how many of them actually end up connecting with organized religion? Though it was quite moving to witness the bar mitzvah of a young man who had made a clear choice—a decision all his own— it also seems clear that his story is nowhere near typical.

The flight from the Church is obvious, yet those of us still within the tradition are mostly still in a state of denial regarding our condition, and our future. We like to blame the culture of which we are part (Sunday morning sports practices, for example) or we convince ourselves that it’s someone else’s problem (like the pastor’s) or that all we need is the right program or slogan (a youth group, for instance). The movement away from the Church, though, is very real and very much a movement with energy and momentum. A certain pastor, or a certain program, is just not going to change the dynamic.

While I certainly don’t think that we should just give up (we are always a people of hope), we should be thinking and praying about what it will be like to be a sort of “remnant” community. How will we function—how can we function—if we are just a tiny group? Can we embrace the “consequences” of being the faithful few, supporting and encouraging each other in deep and abiding ways, even if all we have at worship is a handful of people? Will we find the courage to embrace our smallness and to find strength in our faith, regardless of how many are with us on the journey?

In places like Central Maine, where churches are not just struggling but closing, these are important questions. It’s time that we let go of those memories of full sanctuaries and, instead, embrace our faith, and learn to think about it in new ways—ways that just might lead to something completely unexpected. Like Easter.

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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