This isn't a Sunday sermon. I just wrote this for my church newsletter and I thought I'd share it.
Whatever happened to the good ol’ days? As I write this message, I am still dizzy from the latest email from our conference dean informing me that Good Shepherd Lutheran on Cottman Avenue has voted to close and will hold their final worship on August 25th. This is the eighth ELCA worship site in the old Northeast Philly Conference to sink under the waves during my tenure at Faith. What’s happening?
Remember when everyone went to church? Remember families worshiping together, everyone in their “Sunday best,” and the “after church” crowd at the local restaurant? Remember Luther League? Remember when teens hung out with their church friends and even fell in love and got married and raised Lutheran children? It sure ain’t happening these days. Why?
I have a few ideas. First, we’re too many generations away from the “Builders.” You know. Those lovely Great Depression/World War II folks who were the going-to-churchest people ever on the North American continent. In the post-war prosperity time, folks like my parents moved from farms to cities and cities to suburbs and formed communities by building churches. These people were invested in the religious organizations of their time, and they also had a real sense of obligation to community. Not only did they join and build churches, but they joined the Elks Club and the PTA and the VFW and the Masons. Now, three generations removed, there is less of a sense of community, identification, or trust in such institutions. Our kids build community online instead.
Secondly, we are a much more mobile and heterogeneous society than we were a few generations back. Most white folks don’t form little ethnic enclaves of Italians or Irish or Germans, and we don’t feel the need to find churches specific to an identity we no longer espouse. We’re open-minded and inter-marry with folks of different traditions. We don’t have a denominational “brand loyalty,” because we don’t see ourselves as part of the group our grandparents belonged to. We’ve moved away from our parents’ church, and we don’t feel the need to seek out the community of folks we only half-heartedly identified with in the first place.
And then there’s the change in the meaning of Sunday. Church attendance is not obligatory. We can be “spiritual” but not “religious.” Our work schedules, which may change from week to week, don’t allow us to attend Sunday morning worship with any kind of regularity. We may also be working more than one job, and we’re just exhausted when we’re lucky enough to get something that looks like a weekend. And, of course, the kids—who used to play sports at public school before all the budget cuts—now are part of private soccer and football leagues which practice and compete on Sundays. We want the kids to learn teamwork, and we’ve already invested a few hundred bucks in their fees and equipment. God will forgive us if we don’t take them to Sunday School.
Of course, there is also the media and a general secularization of society, but I don’t really think this factor plays as big a part in the emptying of churches as do the others I’ve mentioned. The big question will have to be: What are we who love our church to do about it? Do we just sit back and watch our churches go down like Custer at the Big Horn?
First, I think we have to get back to basics. We have to ask ourselves what the Christian faith means and what it means to us. We have to know our belief system. This means we have to be disciplined to read the Bible, pray regularly, and worship as often as we can to build a sense of community. We have to be willing to talk about our faith, and we have to see the church as a place where we are in service to the world and not as a place we come to feel good on Sunday mornings. We have to believe in Christ’s mission to the poor and the marginalized, and take up our identity as the helping hands of the needy and the voice of the voiceless.
Second, once we’ve become excited about being Christians, we need to share our faith. A recent Christianity Today poll showed that over 40% of Lutherans have never invited anyone to worship with them, yet 71-82% of unchurched folks are likely to accept an invitation to worship when it comes from a friend or neighbor. A similar poll showed that a pastor’s invitation to church has only about a 6% success rate. I pass out business cards and invitations whenever I perform a funeral service for an un-churched individual. My personal success rate is less than 1%. As my old pal Dr. Phil Krey used to say, “Shepherds don’t beget sheep. Sheep beget sheep.”
Finally, we may need to accommodate a society which no longer has a traditional Sunday morning. I wonder if it’s time to start a Saturday or Sunday evening service, or some kind of worship experience during the work week. Whatever the solution is, we need to be in prayer for our future, be flexible, and believe that God has given us a purpose and a reason to be his children.