This is a really tough time for you. Church membership has fallen to below 50% in the United States (Bailey, 2021). I know you have been worried about butts in pews for years, and now you have objective data to prove just how bad it is.
On top of that, we are in a pandemic. I know you're worried that people have become adjusted to staying in their PJs on Sunday mornings and won't come back.
I'm one of the ones whose church attendance will be very different. I've been thinking a lot about this because I've received my second shot, and a week from today I will be as immune to COVID as I can be.
I don't think I'm coming back.
There are lots of reasons for this, none having to do with PJs. I never spend mornings in PJs unless I am sick.
When the pandemic first started, I was horrified at the rhetoric coming from pastors and parishioners about not living in fear so we need to keep churches open. One woman said she wasn't worried because she was "covered with the blood." That's a gruesome image, but presumably she was repeating what she had been taught by her pastor - Jesus would protect her from illness so she could continue to go about her normal routines. Some pastors have chosen to frame this as a Constitutional issue, successfully blending politics and religion. Where was the concern for the people who were frail, ill, poorly nourished, who were more susceptible to COVID? And Jesus never said we wouldn't suffer. I wonder if the woman with the blood is still alive?
Some pastors navigated this really well. I know some churches have AV teams that can put on really good video shows, and some just sat in their offices with a SmartPhone and talked about our national trauma. And the thing about the pandemic: word gets out about who the good pastors are. I can log on to services around the world. If I logged on and didn't hear about how to care for myself (national trauma, remember) or how to care for my neighbor (again, national trauma), I didn't come back, no matter how savvy the tech team was. I found some great sermons and messages on line, and I really like being able to "attend" church in Chicago, New York City, Washington DC, Jerusalem, or anyplace else that strikes my fancy. I've been able to revisit some of the churches I used to attend. I can visit a church that shares God's message in ways I need to hear, and, sadly for you, that church might not be yours. Or maybe - good for you - it is.
I'm participating in book groups and spiritual groups that I wouldn't be if it weren't for COVID and my new familiarity with ZOOM. I really like not having to drive anywhere. I'm in a book group that meets during lunch and since I'm in my home I can come right from doing alpaca chores and log in. I can get up from the dinner table, or put my PJs on before I join, and do a lectio divina workshop that is really meaningful to me. And I have realized that this is worship, even though it isn't in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
This week I tuned in to a church service and was really disappointed. This past week there was a mass shooting in Indianapolis. 8 people died. On Saturday night there was another mass shooting and 3 people died. Just a week earlier, Daunte Wright was killed by a police officer who mistook her handgun for a taser. This week video surfaced of the death of 13 year old Adam Toledo (I think in my last post I said he was black. He was Latinx). He was shot by police with his hands in the air. At the church I listened to on Sunday, not one person - not the pastor, not the congregants - mentioned the shootings. Not one person. Not during the sermon, and not during the "prayers of the people." Derek Chauvin's trial is wrapping up - an event that is sure to bring strong emotions whichever way the verdict goes. Shouldn't we be praying for that? Not at this church, apparently.
The sermon was about witnessing and inviting people to church. Not that again! I've invited people to church. Sometimes they come, and sometimes they don't. What good will it do if I invite my friends to church, given that my social circle is already mostly church going? It might help my church to bring someone who attends the Baptist church down the road, but it won't help the Baptist church. Am I supposed to visit the AME church and raid their membership to bring more diversity to my church?
Admonishing me to invite someone to church isn't the answer. And guess what - people are seeing through this. Don't tell me to invite someone to church until and unless you are helping me to be in community with people who aren't already going to church. There was a time that I got so tired of the exhortation to just invite my neighbors to church - my neighbor was busy on Sunday mornings because he was a pastor - and guess whose church most of the other neighbors attended? The people who are unchurched are the ones who need the message of Jesus, and the church is in the best position to help people like me encounter them. How am I going to develop a "meaningful relationship" and "build trust" with the grocery store checkout person? I'm thinking about getting my ice cream home to the freezer, and she/he is worried about moving the line along. How am I supposed to do this?
Dear Pastors, you are in a mell of a hess (my 9th grade algebra teacher used to wix his merds regularly and this was a favorite of his - see, I did learn something in algebra!). And I know it is easy for me to say this - I am not looking out at a sea of eyes waiting for me to tell them what to do. I'm not really shepherding anyone - just sharing my thoughts. But it occurs to me that even shepherds have sheep dogs, and so do you. You have church staff and colleagues. You have church councils, lay leaders, consistories, worship committees and mission committees at your disposal. Don't forget the unofficial church leaders - the ones you can go to for advice or ideas, even though they don't have official titles. You aren't in this alone! You need to be listening to young people, old people, new people and people who have been at your church forever. How about people who are new to your denomination? Straight people, gay people, BIPOC and white people. Are you listening or are you too defensive and tired? There is no shame in getting help from a therapist, spiritual director, or both. Set an example!
People today don't want more bells and whistles. I'll be honest - I don't really like contemporary worship bands anyway. I love organ music. But just because that is my opinion doesn't mean that others don't feel the opposite. One person's empty words is someone else's beloved ritual. How do you balance both? Do you have to? Maybe your church is contemporary because the church down the road has a pipe organ and huge choir. Or vice versa. Coffee from an old fashioned coffee pot is just fine with me, and if our only choices are regular or decaf - that is OK too (I guess there should be hot water for tea or hot chocolate for non-coffee drinkers - we don't want to leave them out!). My point is that making cosmetic changes isn't working, and for good reason. Until the church is willing to advocate for and make systemic and structural (not brick and mortar structure) changes, people will keep leaving.
People are beginning to see that churches are getting it wrong. Just like the woman who was covered with blood (universal precautions, anyone?), people are seeing through the bulls***. If all you care about is keeping your doors open, why should someone come? If you are most concerned with increasing your membership but don't really think about where that membership is coming from, that shows. If you aren't willing to call out sin where it exists - even and especially within the church - people see your hypocrisy. I'm not talking about excommunicating anyone. I'm talking about the sins of certainty, comfort, arrogance, and pride. If you aren't walking the walk, people know that.
I want to know what the church stands for. The pastor might not get it exactly right but humility goes a long way to making that OK. I don't care if the person sitting in the next pew has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, or is trying to figure it out, or is visiting from another faith, or came in to get warm or cool, or just likes the music. But from the pulpit? I need to know where the pastor stands, and it needs to be with God.
The church patriarchy is being called out right and left. Are you listening? Here are some things to think about:
When did you last boldly preach about what is going on in our country and world?
How worried are you about someone taking his or her checkbook and walking out the door? Does that temper your sermons and ministry? Or are you authentic and preaching the gospel?
How are women treated in your church? Some denominations refuse to allow women to preach - shame on them. Others do allow women to hold positions of leadership, but are you an ally when the church patriarch tries to shut them down in meetings? Have you asked women in your church how they feel they are treated - and really meant it? If Mary Magdalene were to attend your church would she have a prophetic voice or would she be serving coffee in the fellowship hall?
What are you doing to bring diverse communities together? If you have voted to become reconciling or open and affirming, what are you doing to be sure your congregation has the tools and awareness to truly welcome someone into the church? How is your congregation working to understand the perspectives of people on the margins?
Are you giving a consistent message? Do your church leaders know what they believe? Do you know what your church leaders believe? When is the last time you talked about it?
Are you preaching, or implying, or not contradicting that God hates people not like "us?" Are there people on the margins who are blamed for being there?
What is being taught in your Sunday Schools and Confirmation classes?
What messages are being given to your young people?
Is Jesus at the center of everything you do? Or is your church more of a social club with a cross at the front?
Are you talking about the evils of white privilege and white supremacy? Are you talking about why white people are afraid, and helping them to navigate out of that fear?
Are you talking about the evils of unrestrained capitalism?
Does the American flag still have a prominent place on or near your altar? Have you explored with your congregation whether it belongs there?
Are you helping your congregation differentiate between nationalism and Christianity? Have you talked about what "rights" really are God-given and which aren't?
What are you afraid of? Being irrelevant? Being wrong? Being replaced? Where is your trust in yourself, your congregation, and most especially, God?
We have so much work to do. The churches that I see that are thriving aren't always getting it right, and they know it. But they are willing to admit it, and to share their efforts. It is time for churches to walk the walk. Are the assurances of pardon letting us off the hook, or are we really called to repentance? What does repentance even mean? And then what?
If church is something that people do for an hour a week, it's not going to survive. There are too many other ways to worship, to study and to foster a relationship with God. As a friend said recently, you can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, but they're still going down. It is time for soul searching and bold steps. It is time to step out in faith. It is time to think outside the box. It is time to risk getting it wrong. God can handle it.
Dear Pastor, you have a tough row to hoe. I'm praying for you. And if you are a leader in a faith that isn't Christian, I hope you'll consider what I've said, too. And I'm praying for you, because God knows we need God now by whatever name we choose. And if you are not clergy, then what are you doing to hold your pastor and your fellow worshipers to account? How are you bringing the word of God?
Here are some of the podcasts I've been listening to that have changed my understanding of God, and of church (there are so many other podcasts!):
The Bible for Normal People
Turning to the Mystics
Learning How to See with Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis and Richard Rohr
Here are some of the books I've been reading (friend me on Goodreads to see the whole list: Kathy Brown). These have helped open my eyes, broaden my perspective, and deepen my relationship with God:
*A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal. Edited by Sarah Bessey
*Outlawed by Anna North
*The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby
*One Coin Found: How God's Love Stretches to the Margins by Emmy Kegler
*Keep Watch with Me: An Advent Reader for Peacemakers by Michael T. McCray
*How to be an AntiRacist by Ibram X. Kendi
*Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin B. Curtice
*Santa Biblia: the Bible Through Hispanic Eyes by Justo L. Gonzalez
*The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns *A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community by John Pavlovitz
Here, with permission, is a link to a really good sermon from April 18 that incorporates grief about the recent shootings, and the unequal treatment experienced by black and brown people. Yes, it is Julia's sermon, and yes, I am her proud Mom. But it is spot on.
Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. "Church Membership in the US has Fallen Below the Majority for the First Time in Nearly a Century." Washington Post. March 29, 2021.Church membership has fallen below the majority for the first time - The Washington Post.
Church Steeple. Image. https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/pictures/260000/velka/church-steeple-1524828997V5O.jpg. Accessed April 19, 2021.