This year’s Easter Sunday worship service at Old South brought a total attendance of 48 people. That number includes guest musicians and guests of the guest musicians. Two days later, Old South “hosted” (I’ll get to the use that particular word in a moment) a memorial service. Attendance at that service? 125.
This is the reality in which we live. While there may be some who stubbornly hang on to their denial, it’s impossible to ignore the precipitous freefall we clearly are experiencing as a church. We are not alone, of course. Most Mainline Protestant churches in our area (and across the country) are also struggling with attendance. The United Methodist church in Maine’s capital city, Augusta (just north of Hallowell), recently voted to put their building up for sale. Not all that long ago, that particular church was known as one of “the” churches in the area, with a large and robust congregation.
One of the people who attended Tuesday’s memorial service spoke to me during the reception. He asked about how the church is doing and how many attended worship on Easter. This began a short conversation about church life in the small city in Hallowell. The man attends the Roman Catholic church, just down the street from Old South. He bemoaned the struggles of the area churches and then started shaking his head at the expenses of maintaining church buildings. “We need more money!” he declared. I gently, but firmly, disagreed. Sure, money is an issue and more of it would be helpful. But, the more significant problem is people.
It doesn’t really matter how well a building is maintained. If there’s no congregation, there’s no church.
And, this brings me to the sense of “hosting” that memorial service. One of the sons of the woman who died had contacted me several weeks ago, to let me know that his mother was nearing the end of her life. He wanted to alert me and to start the process of planning her service. The name of the dying woman rang no bells for me. So, I tried to ask a few questions, without being too obnoxious. Had he reached the right church (there are several Old Souths in Maine)? Yes. Was he sure she wanted her funeral at the church? Yes. Can you tell me a bit more about that, since I’m fairly certain I never met her, even though I’ve been at the church for almost twenty years? Old South is our family’s church, I was told. She taught Sunday School there and was in the choir.
Once I was informed of her death a couple of weeks later, I met with a small group of the woman’s many children (all now adults). I continued to try to explore the “why” question and the family continued to tell me that Old South is their “family” church, even though none of them attend except for the occasional memorial service. Several of them live close by, so there’s no excuse not to attend at all. I asked a few more questions about the mother, trying to figure out why she had stopped attending— especially after I figured out that she had stopped attending years and years ago, probably back in the 1970s. Still baffled, I continued to ask questions. And, then there was a piece of information that hit me hard, and made me want to banish the entire family from my sight: the woman who had died had been living right across the street from the church, in senior housing. For years.
Years! And, never did she darken the door. Not even for Christmas Eve or Easter. The last time she set foot in the church, as far as I could tell, was for her husband’s funeral in 2001. Yet, she seems to have clearly informed her family that she wanted to have her memorial at Old South.
The family shared all of this with me like it was no big deal, as if there are loads of families who have some distant tie to the building and when there’s a death, that’s where they will go.
Like it will always be there. Like magic.
While it may seem for this family that Old South is their “family church,” they clearly have no idea what it means to put those two words together. Claiming a special fondness for a church involves a lot more than simply declaring a connection and sort of admiring the building from afar, even if the distance is only the width of a street in a small city. As the clergyperson called upon to lead this service, it felt altogether odd and disconcerting. I couldn’t say anything personal about this woman. I also couldn’t say anything about her affinity for our faith or her spiritual life. There were no special Bible passages to share and no favorite hymns to sing.
We were hosts to a bizarre little ritual that seemed like only an item that needed to be checked off in settling the affairs of the deceased. She asked for her memorial service to take place at Old South in Hallowell. Done. Check.
Yet her service attracted more than twice the number that attended the Easter Sunday worship just two days before. The math isn’t good— for anyone. That family really has no idea that the next time there’s a death in their family, the “family” church may no longer exist simply because they chose not to be involved in any way. The church is not just a convenient building. It’s not a place that magically supports itself. It’s not just a handy place to gather for life’s big transitional moments. It’s a living, breathing thing, that is slowly suffocating and diminishing because certain families do not care enough to actually care for their “family church.”