Throughout the world there are churches that have been in continuous use as places of worship where centuries of warfare and destruction could not overcome them. They stand in contrast to lovely old parish church buildings left abandoned and decaying, or, if lucky, converted into museums, inns, or homes. Many church buildings in America are in rural, aging towns with too few people to support the dozen or so congregations that once thrived. Too many more are the result of economic flight, and disregard for the need of a worshiping community to serve a changing neighborhood. Sadly, some are the result of declining church attendance across all denominations whose clergy and lay leadership failed to teach and proclaim the gospel effectively. Booming mega churches have succeeded, at least for now, by creating safe, non controversial social gathering places where comfort and encouragement is doled out in the form of promises that with just a little more cash to support the preacher, God will dump loads of financial blessings on the congregation.
I’ve been thinking about such things because we now worship at Bruton Parish Church, the oldest church building in America in continuous use for worship since it was built in 1711 to replace an earlier building dating from 1674. Its interior is a replica of what it was like at the height of colonial elegance when the king’s presence was represented by the royal governor whose canopied throne sat in the chancel, and the pulpit was two stories high. In those days, College of William and Mary students were required to attend services, the rector was the president of the college, slaves sat in a gallery “reserved” for them, gentry sat toward the front, and the poor toward the back. Any matter of importance to the town was debated and settled in the church. The governor’s palace was around the corner, the capitol down the street at one end, the college at the other, and Bruton Parish Church anchored everything.
That elegance lasted only a few decades. The War of Independence, War of 1812, and Civil War ravaged the land as armies attacked and retreated through Williamsburg. Bruton’s interior was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again many times. The building was used as a warehouse, stable, field hospital, morgue, and school, but always as a place of Christian worship. The congregation ebbed from the wealthy elite of Virginia to the poorest of villagers left to pick up the pieces and start again. It was not until the early 20th century that work began to restore its colonial grandeur. Today it is again a large, active congregation, this time serving the whole community, a forceful voice for civil rights, with a broad mix of young, old, and economic status, and a smattering of racial diversity. It also lives in harmony with First Baptist Church, the oldest black congregation in Virginia.
At the other end of the spectrum, I served a tiny congregation in the rural West for many years. The building could seat forty, but Sundays were usually ten to fifteen. They could never afford a full time priest, but they had soldiered on for 120 years proclaiming the gospel, providing clothing, school supplies, summer funds for camps and pools, and participating fully in diocesan affairs.. Always small, always poor, always rich with God’s blessings, they will go on like that for as long as the town exists. You don’t have to be big or wealthy to succeed.
The point is, that faithful Christians, even those supporting the cause of slavery or the forceful submission of American Indians, continued to worship, whether many or few, rich or poor, in good times and bad. I can’t imagine that any of the dramatic changes these congregations faced were easy or comfortable. It must have often seemed that God had abandoned the church and the people who worshiped there. Yet they persevered.
I wonder sometimes if so called dying, aging congregations fade away for lack of commitment to follow Jesus by proclaiming by word and deed the Good News of God revealed in Christ Jesus. I’ve read the same articles you have, about changing demographics, poor marketing, etc. There are good excuses for towns that have grown so small they can no longer support a dozen churches, but there is no excuse for handing rural America over to Christian nationalists and their ilk, or to preachers more in love with the devil than Jesus – they’re the ones who open and end sermons with scary stories about how the devil has taken over the land, and stick Jesus in the middle with the threat of being sent to hell if He is not accepted as one’s personal lord and savior, according to the terms and conditions set forth by the preacher. Some congregations drift into oblivion because they become little more than social clubs to which those who should belong, already do belong. Maybe it’s too many pastors who are more ritualists than proclaimers of the Word, offering healing and hope in the Eucharist. Sometimes it seems to be timidity in forceful proclamation of God’s love, for fear of alienating the wrong people. After all, there are enough troubles in most people’s lives that being urged to reflect more deeply on God in ways that will change everything, might be too much to ask. The hymn “Just as I am without one plea…” is true enough, but when through it one is led into Christ’s presence, just as I am, it is the beginning of transformation into a new being in Christ Jesus.
And so I grow weary of tears of woe from priests and pastors, lay leaders, and the gamut of religious writers. If Paul had done that, we would have burned his letters long ago as worthless drivel from an evangelical failure. The same can be said of James, Peter, John and others such as Augustine, who continued on as Rome fell and Carthage was attacked. Maybe that’s what Bonhoeffer was driving at when he wrote enigmatically about religionless religion. Religion is the ritual through which faith is expressed. When religion becomes its own end, what’s the point?
© Steven E. Woolley