I attended a funeral recently at a United Church of Christ Church in Central Maine, not far from the church I serve. While the service included a couple of prayers from the Book of Worship at the beginning and the end, and a tiny “reflection” from the pastor based on the ever-familiar passage from Ecclesiastes through which the congregation was reminded that on that particular day we were experiencing “a time to mourn,” the bulk of the service was devoted to “open mic” time. Family and friends were encouraged to share stories about the person who had died, a popular man who had lived in that town, and attended that church, all of his life.
Well into “open mic” time, after several family members had offered stories, a woman went to the front of the sanctuary. She allowed that most people in the congregation probably didn’t know her. She was the wife of one of the deceased’s cousins. She told us that she and her husband had visited the man who had died just a few days before his death and then she went on, “And I need to tell you that he was a man of faith.”
Hooray! I exclaimed in my head. Until this moment, and except for the small nods toward religion in the prayer at the beginning, the service I was attending could have been taking place in any gathering spot. No one had said anything about faith or faithfulness. Even the minister’s ties to religion seemed only related to prayers copied from the worship book, and the readings from scripture could have been any readings from any kind of book. Religion, faith, Christianity were all woefully lacking.
In just about any mainline church in this area, especially those that are declining in numbers, you’ll hear a litany of reasons regarding shrinking attendance numbers—sports practices on Sunday mornings, shopping on Sunday mornings, wanting to sleep late on Sunday mornings. All of those reasons have something to do with what’s happening outside the church.
We should be spending more time thinking and reflecting on what’s happening inside the church, especially when it come to our own expression of faith and why we attend church.
It seems clear enough to me that many mainline church members have lost the language of faith. In particular, they have lost the public expression of faith and their attachment to a church, aside from the friendships they have formed and a private devotion to God. The funeral that I attended recently was not the first in this area where I noticed the absence of “faith talk.” I’ve especially noticed the decline in sermons or homilies, at such important times as death, providing substantive remarks on basic notions of the Christian faith.
If those of us within the church have no language to claim our faith, we shouldn’t even begin to hope that others will ever want to join us. We should make plans for our closing.
In this blog, I have written in the past about not always “blaming the victim” when it comes to church decline. There are indeed forces beyond our control, in changing values, priorities, and, in places like central Maine, the sad reality that the population as a whole is in decline. But, we must also look at our own selves and be willing to consider our own contribution to shrinking churches.
When we cannot speak of why we attend, when we cannot meaningfully reflect on suffering, death, resurrection, and the purpose of our lives, we feed our own decline. Funerals, in a special way, offer crucial opportunities to speak of what it means to be people of faith. It’s sad, then, that even in a church, “funerals” have given way to “celebrations of life,” where we focus almost entirely on the life that has ended, ignoring the mysteries of the promises of Christ, and the cross, and what happens when death itself is passed.
The question is: are we are people of faith, of the Christian faith, or are we simply mourners at a “celebration of life” for the church that has itself passed away?