We’re Doomed, Part 1: Public vs Private

To title this week’s blog post as I have, and to suggest (accurately) that my intention is to title successive blog posts as such, is perhaps to sound as if I’ve completely caved in to despair.  But, I don’t think that’s the case.  I’d appreciate my readers to keep an open mind, and to try not to assume a negative judgment on the word “doomed.”  Given that we are in Lent, I’d prefer to think about my consideration of “doomed” akin to those sojourners on the road to Emmaus.  They thought the story was over, that the movement was “doomed,” and they were leaving town.  And, then Jesus joined them.  But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been talking to a variety of people who don’t attend Old South, or a church like it.  I’ve reached out to a few people who were once a part of Old South but are no longer, as well as a few people who haven’t been attached to any kind of church since childhood.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be spending some time thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned through these conversations.  By no means have I engaged in any kind of scientific approach, but I think I’ve gained some valuable insights.

In this first assessment of how we, at Old South and churches like us, are “doomed,” I’m thinking a lot about my sense that we are dealing with a fundamental shift in perception and approach to faith.  Most of those who attend Old South, talk mostly about faith being a “private” thing.  Although we go to church, attend Bible Study, commit ourselves to the mission of the church through service to the church and donations to various mission projects, we primarily think of faith as a private matter.  Church devotion is a way of having one’s faith guided, as well as encouraged and supported.  Worship is a good place to get a “pat on the back,” to sing and to hear familiar music, and to spend some time apart from the world, in praise and in prayer.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it’s not so much a place to talk about one’s faith—at least not openly.  One may talk to the pastor, one-on-one, about one’s faith, especially the struggles of the life of faith.  One might enjoy hearing the pastor’s views on faith during weekly sermons and one may even look forward to the singing of certain hymns—and how hymns help us express our sense of God’s presence.  But, almost all of that is private.

I’ve spoken to a couple of people who no longer find this approach to faith meaningful.  One of them spoke to me in a very articulate way of her interest in public faith, being able to speak openly about faith as well as finding ways of expressing faith in public acts of mission and service.  She left Old South several years ago and now attends a different local church that is “bursting at the seams.”  Another person to whom I spoke is not quite so interested in public acts of faith, but has found that the staid New England approach to faith is dull and listless, that the sense of renewal that one can get at a place like Old South is just a little too similar to what one might gain from another kind of gathering of people.

The practice of faith at Old South is just too private, too inwardly directed.  There’s a very serious question, though, about whether or not to do anything about that.  Sure, we could try to institute a more public way of expressing faith, but would that just drive away the current members, leaving the church with no one?

Part of the question leads me to ask and wonder whether or not there’s a “right” and a “wrong” way to live out the faith.  Those churches in this area that offer a more public faith may have more people attending, but does that mean that they are doing it “right,” and that Old South is doing it “wrong”?  Or, could it be that there are many ways of living out the faith and that, even though Old South’s more private approach to faith may not speak to many at this point in history, that it’s a perfectly reasonable way of living out the faith, and should continue, even if that means that the church may need to close in the not so distant future?

This is one of those profoundly important questions to consider and pray over.  It would be one thing if we, at Old South, had a contingent of people who advocated for doing church differently, to invite and encourage a more public way of living our faith.  But, we don’t have that.  Instead, those who are newer to Old South seem comfortable with our more “private” approach.  Yet, we are not gaining the numbers of newer people that would help us to see the church’s life extend far into the future.

So, maybe we are “doomed,” but is that a bad thing?  Might we be living out our faith, being “good and faithful” servants, and that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with whether or not the church still exists twenty-five years from now, that the right thing to do is to live the faith as we experience it?

For me, the most important thing for us is to live out the faith, and to live it well, with love and enthusiasm, seeking to share the good news—to the extent that we can “share” our mostly private faith—and not to worry about what happens next or what the latest faith “fad” is.  We might just be doomed, but so long as we continue to live out the glory of God, we are doing it just right.

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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