Church. It is a changin’! So say the statistics published recently by the Gallup organization and reported on Churchtrac.com. According to Churchtrac, attendance at regular weekly religious services has fallen consistently in the 21st century, from 32% in 2000 to 20% in 2022 (view chart here). That’s a fairly precipitous decline in such a short period of time. Yes, I know, Covid-19 happened (and the pandemic may have accelerated the decline), but the decline started long before the pandemic, so let’s not blame it all on that.
And, we wonder why our culture is in decline! Yes, the culture is in decline. I invite you to change my mind. When I say the culture, I mean the American culture. Seriously, can any of us say we are better off than a generation ago? It has always been the desire of one generation to leave a better world for the next generation (you know, your children and grandchildren). I’m not so sure that we ( I mean my generation–I was born the last year of the “boomer” generation) will be leaving our progeny a better world. I think the decline in church attendance is one of the primary reasons why. What do I mean?
We haven’t passed on the faith to the next generation. We (I mean my generation) have lost our perspective when it comes to faith formation. According to Barna Research, Boomers had the highest drop off rate in returning to worship post-Covid at 22%. I don’t mean to bore you with numbers, but research shows our failure in passing on the faith. I can hear the words of Deuteronomy 6 in my ear:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heartand with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
The primary place of faith formation is in the home, but we need the church (and we need to go to church) to be reminded of who we are and Whose we are. We need to go to church to remind us that we are connected to something greater than ourselves, to remind us that we are not the center of the universe (and neither are our children or grandchildren). We need to go to church to experience the transcendent nature of the Almighty, to remind us that morality matters and why it matters. We need a church family (yes, I said need!) for connection and community.
I know the argument that community is found in so many other places nowadays, but too many of the places people are finding community are in places where connection and community can happen without any moral compass. Yes, people have ethics and each of those communities have boundaries that define them, but too often those boundaries are rooted in activities rather than in any type of moral foundation. The morals and ethics brought to those communities come from outside those communities (generally), and my point is that the more we move away from the place that we find a moral compass, the further we drift from a firm foundation. The church, with all its faults and failures, is STILL the place we will find a moral compass and a firm foundation.
But, the Church is a mess, right? Of course it is! Guess what? It always has been. There have been (and there will always be) times when Christians individually, and the Church corporately, have failed to live up the standards set by Jesus and the Apostles (man! Am I living proof of that fact!). The Church has sometimes failed to embody its own values. Here’s the thing, though: the values survive the failures! That’s why there’s hope, and that’s why I want to go to church.
I am reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew:
Now I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16: 18
I take this as Jesus’ promise that the Church will not go so far astray that it becomes something it was never meant to be. Though the Church may not be perfect does not mean that Jesus is not perfectly faithful in keeping His promises. Otherwise, hell would win, and well, that’s just not going to happen!
The Church is rooted not in the failures of individuals or institutions, but in its creeds, doctrines and sacraments. These give the Church anchor, and they give we who attend regularly anchor in our lives. When we miss church (and the more we miss church) we lose a little bit of our anchor…our foundation. The more un-moored we become from the church the more the culture will drift from any firm foundation holding it together.
I believe there is still time, though, to recover our foundations. How will it happen? Not by waiting on bishops or clergy to change the world. It will happen when we look in the mirror. You and I are the Church. You and I must to be connected to one another with a common thread of faith because whatever the Church is going to be or whatever the Church is going to do, it will be or do because you and I step up and participate. You and I, as imperfect as we are, are perfectly suited to be vessels the Holy Spirit can use to change the world. It won’t happen if we’re not connected to each other.
Maybe I had to write this today because I’ve been singing this song all week:
Let’s all go to church!
Until next time, keep looking up…