The Pew Research Center has released a report, “How Religious Is Your State?” For anyone paying attention to the religious landscape, the report contains little in the way of surprise. Yet, it is still startling to see that I not only live in one of the least religious states in the country, but in a region, a cluster of states, that is decidedly secular. Take a look at the graphic and notice the very pale blue section of the country, there in the northeast corner:
I found myself recently in a small group of people who attend Old South. They expressed concern about the church, and its future. It’s a conversation I’ve had countless times. The church in these days isn’t what they expected and they are looking around and trying to figure out what happened, what they missed. They are still going to church, after all, but what happened to everyone else?
In the small city in which Old South exists, changes in culture and habit are clear—if you dare look around. When I drive through Hallowell on my way to church on Sunday mornings, I can’t help but notice the people I see around town and what they are doing—walking their dogs, on a run for exercise, wandering up the hill from Water St. with the New York Times tucked under an arm, or wandering down the hill on the way to brunch or to the bakery. Sunday mornings are lazy mornings for a lot of people in Hallowell.
And, yet, there is still so much mystery and wondering among the members of Old South. What happened? Where did everyone go?
I feel like we are at the bottom of a very large mountain, and the mountain is so close that we cannot perceive how big it is. For me, the choices are clear: we face the mountain boldly and take it on (learning to invite people to church, learning to talk about our faith, changing how we do things, etc.); or we admit that we don’t want to climb the mountain, accepting that we are facing our sunset; or, we can bury our heads in the sand, pretending the problem doesn’t really exist, or that it’s someone else’s fault, or that if we wait long enough, the culture will change just by wishing it were so.
Central Maine, along with the entire Northeast, is a difficult place in which to be church and especially to be on the more moderate/liberal/progressive end of the Christian spectrum. According to the Pew Research Center, Maine’s religious profile is as follows: 34% say that religion is very important in their lives; 22% say they attend worship at least weekly; 35% pray daily; 48% believe in God with absolute certainty.
The reality is all too clear, and it isn’t new. Yet too many church folk seem determined to look away, or to engage in the same old ponderings about low Sunday worship attendance (Sunday morning sports practices, for example.). We can avert our eyes or pretend it isn’t there, but the mountain is all too real. I would prefer that we look at the mountain and admit that we just don’t have the energy to climb it and prayerfully acknowledge that we are near the end. That seems a lot more honest, not to mention faithful, than sticking our heads in the sand and thinking that all those secular people will magically, entirely on their own, decide to come to church. The state of denial seems so undignified and hollow.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul may not have been talking about 21st century churches, but I still think his words are helpful, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:8-9)
There’s nothing in there about those who live in the world of wishful thinking. I can’t help but think that Christ would rather we be engaged in one or the other, life or death, faithful to the Gospel, sharing God’s love, living in mission, whether we live or die. Just not the horrible middle, where we wonder about things, while resisting the answers that are right in front of us.