In the next week, somewhere between 150 and 220 churches will close their doors for good. During that same week, about 20 new churches will open their doors with about an 80% success rate in remaining open for the first five years. Now, math has never been my strong point, but I think I can figure this one out and the result is not comforting. Our 16 surviving new church plants will not make up what has been lost. The new churches will, of course, mitigate the loss, but only by about 10%.
For many reading this post, the figures above will not matter. Some have already abandoned the idea of ever finding a place within a local community of faith. Others have a community of faith with which they are satisfied. Still others simply have no interest in what is taking place in the larger context of church life in America as, for whatever reason, it does not affect them directly.
For myself, I find the numbers to be wholly expected having watched the downward trend over the last few decades. I also, however, find the numbers deeply disturbing.
Now it’s time for a confession. Although I often write about the importance of the local church and its attendant ministries, I generally have to force myself to go to church. Much of the time I really don’t like it. (It’s one of the reasons that I will occasionally visit other other churches.) I don’t like it to the extent that sometimes I wonder why I am there. I try to filter out the “professional” side of things. Having taught liturgy and participated in churches with a high standard in the area of worship, I find the local expression of liturgical life less than satisfying. Having spent the majority of my adult life being concerned about history, doctrine and their cogent presentation in well chosen words, either in lectures or in books, I find most preaching less than inspiring. Yet, there I am in my pew… and I’m wondering, “Why am I here?”.
At this point, I could try to reclaim my piety and simply say that I am there to take part in the Eucharist, but even that’s not wholly true. After all, I could don a alb and stole, invite my wife and a couple of friends and celebrate the Eucharist in my home. My wife could read the first lesson, my friend, Michael, the second and I could proclaim the Gospel, give an abbreviated homily and move straight to the Lord’s Supper. It would be a valid celebration. It would certainly be acceptable to me and my preferences, but would it be “church”?
Perhaps if we were living in a time of persecution and having to live out our faith in secret, I could call it “church”. Regardless, however, of what you read on the internet, we are not undergoing a persecution of the Church here in the United States. If anything, we have been given so many perquisites and privileges in this country that we no longer understand what real persecution is all about. The last time I read one of Michael Newnham’s columns, he might have had some comments in a thread that took issue with one or more statements he made, but I’ve yet to see his column written to us as a letter telling us that he is on his way to Rome to be fed to wild beasts in the arena!
So, why is church so difficult and, again, why should we be concerned with the numbers that are being reported?
Here I can speak only for myself. Church is not about us as individuals. It is not about our preferences. It is not about our likes and dislikes. It is not about our contemporary consumer culture, but that culture, in my opinion, has influenced our expectations.
Allow me to illustrate…
Once upon a time in the dark and distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the planet, I used to buy albums – LPs – by artists that I liked. I might have only heard one song, but I bought the whole album. I would read the liner notes. Sometimes the album only had that one great song, but most of the time I discovered new songs that I had not heard before. Often, I fell in love with music that, apart from buying that album, I would never have discovered. In that same distant past, I went to bookstores. (For the uninformed among you, these were large buildings with thousands of books for sale, that you could look at first, then buy and take home with you. Most cities in the distant past had many such emporiums.) Often, I would go to buy one book and emerge with several others that I had chanced upon and perked my interest.
Then along came iTunes and I could purchase just the one song that I liked, without bothering with the others. Still later came streaming services that would create playlists based upon what I had listened to earlier. If I wanted a book, I could order it in one click and not be distracted by other titles on the shelf. Now my purchases, my listening, my reading, could be all about me… my preferences, my likes and dislikes. Moreover, we’ve grown to expect it in almost every area of our lives, from the movies we can view on demand, to cable news that espouses or echoes our point of view, to the cars that we can order to our specifications.
I also think that many of us have come to expect this of church. As a fast food chain would say, “Have It Your Way”… and it is killing us.
Like it or not, church is a corporate experience of give and take, not in terms of doctrine or creedal affirmations, but in terms of personalities, preferences, likes and dislikes. It is a place of discovery where we hear songs that we did not know in the lives of others; where we read books of which we have been unaware in the experiences of others. It is ultimately a family and, as in any family, there will be arguments and disagreements but, (and this is in the best of families) there will be a bond of love that rises above all of the rest.
So, once again, why is church so difficult and, again, why should we be concerned with the numbers that are being reported?
I would like to suggest that the difficulty is not primarily that of the church, it is us. Our expectations have become shaped by a contemporary culture that tells us at every turn that we should have what we want when we want it. It is a culture that is built around immediate gratification in which patience is not a virtue, but rather, it is a vexation. It is a culture that says your choice is paramount and that commercial enterprises and institutions (including the church) should cater to that choice because, after all, if they don’t, someone else will.
The closing of churches should concern us, because it tells us much about ourselves. Yes, it tells us about aging congregations, shifting demographics and changing rural and urban population patterns. It also tells us that many of us, including myself, have imported many of the expectations of contemporary consumer culture and, if and when our expectations fail to be met, we are perhaps too willing to depart. Certainly, many have… and churches continue to close their doors.