People usually go somewhere for one of two reasons: they want to because it is pleasurable or they are required to go.. There’s a not so subtle difference between deciding on one’s own initiative to go where one doesn’t want to go and going where one desires to go. My wife, for instance, detests going to the grocery store but she goes anyway. I dislike my regular eye injections but I keep my appointments. On the other hand when we travel to new destinations and experience new things it’s delightful. We want and make plans to go even if it involves some discomfort. Those are two simple examples of an unlimited variety of deciding to go somewhere for quite different reasons: one because it’s required, the other because it brings happiness.
There was a time when going to church was a social and family obligation, a required badge of acceptability. One went to church because one was supposed to go not out of religious conviction. The choice of church was dictated by family, the denomination acceptable for one’s ethnicity and class, or perhaps one’s aspirations for right connections and better social status. They were motivations not unlike the ones that get my wife into the grocery store or me to the eye doc. There was no great pleasure in church per se but at least the sermon might be entertaining, the music good, and the service not too long. A check could be made in one more box of things one had to do that were not in and of themselves worth doing. It has something to do with today’s wide spread disinterest in attending worship services.
Denomination leaders fret over the continuing decline in attendance and recorded membership. Plans are made for how to get people into church, especially young people. You should go to church, it’s good for you, is the echoing lecture of well meaning elders. That admonition isn’t working and why should it? A child being told “you should eat your vegetables, they’re good for you” has no effect on a kid who has no idea what that means is not motivated to eat anything that isn’t pleasurably tasty. I’ve been in unfamiliar places where eager locals urge visitors to go there and taste that. Why should I? I’m happy as I am, what’s the payoff for me? I need more than “you should” to taste something vile smelling and odious looking, no matter it’s a local delicacy. Before I visit an unknown place where I’ll be expected to participate in some way, I want to know details about what it is, what’s done there, why it’s done, what might be expected of me and if there are any risks involved. “You should, everybody does” is not a persuasive encouragement. With that in mind why should anyone go to church? That disinterested mindset has not always been universal of course, but it’s wide spread enough that families have become less concerned about whether their children are well educated in the fundamentals of a faith. It seems attendance is the primary measure of church success. Attendance says nothing about the value of religious faith or “customer” satisfaction with it. Also, in my not so humble opinion, the Sunday school curricula of the post war years were dumbed down to a low level and taught by untrained persons – nothing at all like the more demanding studies kids get in school. Sunday school was of little interest to children or teens.
The domestic turmoil of the Johnson, Carter, Nixon and Reagan years challenged every established social and political norm. Activists promoted new norms freeing many, unacceptable to many more, and uncomfortable for all. One thing led to another and the usual institutions, such as church, that bequeathed status and useful networking on their members, were among the victims. Why go if church was no longer needed as a way to fit in or climb the ladder of success? Weekends were free time: get household chores out of the way, then. Do what you want to do. It wasn’t true jor everyone in every place, but it was in enough places for enough people.
That’s my simplified version of what happened and and one reason why the church continues to see declines in attendance. My standard response is we are not called to count bodies in pews or dollars pledged. We are to proclaim the good news of God in Christ Jesus through which we are called to the only better way of life there is, and not for us only but for the whole world. With that consistent proclamation, I believe we can restore our churches to a more robust future. Parenthetically, it’s also true that declines in an aging church are cause by death., an irreversible factor.
Proclaiming the gospel is not a marketing ploy, pop psychology, or feel good preaching. It’s the Lord God Almighty calling humanity to turn to the only source of life there is, and to follow Jesus Christ in the way of love. All other paths can promise whatever they like. They cannot deliver. It’s not a promise of perfection, ease, paradise on earth or anything else in an Amazon Prime website. It’s God imploring God’s beloved humanity to care for themselves and creation according to God’s commandments as sealed by Jesus Christ.
It’s not easy to convince others of its truth. The earth is saturated with alternatives promising less trouble, more pleasure, and greater immediate rewards. Anecdotal examples testify to their occasional and temporary efficacy. People hungry for something that can be relied on demand to know what makes God, as Christians understand God, any better. What’s better is that God, and only God, is the source of all that is good and in whom the whole of creation is held in love. There is no other source to whom one can turn. In the words of an old hymn, all other ground is shifting sand. In Jesus is revealed the fullness of God that can be comprehended by human minds. He is the Word of God made flesh. Does that mean non-Christians have no hope? Absolutely not. God so loved the world, not just Christians. Christians are to bear the light of Christ by word and deed, inviting all to join with them and not damning those who don’t: it is God alone that saves, not church membership. Christian baptism is not a confirmation of exclusive membership in the family of. God, but a seal of ordination as a bearer of God’s love to others. Doing the best they can with all their limitations they are to show by example what the way of love looks like, and to advocate for godly justice wherever they are. Success is Christian ministry that brings healing, reconciliation and godly justice that help make conditions of life better than they were, or at least not as bad.
The institutional church and we as individualChristians might learn from the past. All the spiritual and material gods that exist today existed in the Greco/Roman world of the early church. They had different names but made the same promises: a better, more successful life, just a few easy payments and you will reap what you desire, if things go wrong it’s your fault for angering the gods, the oracle will tell your future, and all the rest. It’s not so different from what today’s religious and easy riches hucksters pedal.
The early apostles knew that. They also new none of it ever delivered as promised. Everyone was left wanting. In Athens Paul acknowledged the many gods, and boldly proclaimed the unspoken truth: none of them worked, except maybe to make shrine keepers wealthy. Paul proclaimed the living God through whom all things “live and move and have their being” (Acts 17). This life is important and to follow Jesus in the way of life will so fulfill one’s deepest desire no amount of threats or tragedy can take it away, and a yet greater, more abundant life awaits in eternity with God for those who will accept is. I suppose other apostles said much the same because the Christian faith had spread throughout the Roman world and well beyond within a hundred years of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. It is this basic simple message proclaimed boldly in word and deed that will renew the church. The church, as the institutional vehicle for the faith, will never be the universal norm. Not here nor anywhere. It will always be something of a voice calling from the perimeter. Never mind. The Lord God Almighty’s voice will be proclaimed through it, and that’s all we are required to do.