Last Sunday afternoon I was copied on an email that my Aunt Carol sent to her son, her siblings (four sisters and one younger brother, who happens to be my dad), and me. From the moment I read her email, and the responses from my aunts and father, I knew I was looking at the heart of the Reformation Day sermon I’m preaching this morning, which, in my head, I’ve titled, “Reformation: A Family Conversation.” It consists mostly of reading you letters from members of my family to one another, but I hope that you’ll see that the observations and questions, fears and anxieties that my family has about our church at this moment are shared with others, like all of us here at St. Luke’s, who are members of a family formed by the waters of baptism.
My Aunt Carol writes,
One week ago, the Rev. David Wangaard led our worship for the 115th anniversary of our church. It was the first I’d heard that the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis plans to close 21 Catholic church in the Twin Cities metro area, with several dozen more to share priests, some staff and services. He also told us that in Minneapolis, 70% of children are non-Christian.
I’ve thought a lot about those figures in the last week. Obviously “white flight” ever since the sixties has played a part with people dashing for the suburbs to get away from “scary” black people, and many of the deserted homes and businesses were filled with immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. But putting non-Christian immigrants aside for a moment, why is Christianity on the decline in the metro area among Christians?
We’ve lost all five of our Presbyterian churches in North Minneapolis and Lutheran churches may eventually follow them into obsolescence.
Thinking of my own circle of friends, the most religious by far is a Jewish family. I’m the only one who attends church regularly. The last time [my friend] Marilyn attempted to attend a Christian church, she didn’t last the full hour and left mid-service. She’d been raised a Lutheran, and was offended by the politically conservative message she was getting from the pulpit. I suspect that may be why [another friend] Jane no longer attends services at her Catholic church.
As I say, I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject all week.
My aunt finishes her email with the question on the hearts and minds of many church goers in this day and age, “Is there a path for the church back to relevance with urban singles?”
I finished reading her message and wanted immediately to dash off a reply. As you can imagine, as a professional religionist, I have some thoughts on this topic. My father and I have spent the better part of our adult relationship talking about the church and the transformations it is undergoing. I could hear his answer to his sister’s question in my own mind, and I felt sure that if I just waited a day or so he would send out a reply that summarized most of the arguments I’ve heard him make before on this subject.
Never one to disappoint, by the next morning my father had whipped off a short essay to the family with his thoughts on my Aunt Carol’s questions about the decline of the church, at least in North America. He writes,
What is our baseline for measurement? What do we consider “normal?” For many years in this country, church membership and attendance was part of the immigrant experience. One way Poles, Italians and Irish kept their national identity was by attending their Catholic church – different ones for Poles, Italians and Irish. The same would be true for Lutherans. Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Germans all had their own brand of Lutheranism. Have you ever been to St. Olaf College? It is SO Norwegian. When Garrison Keillor talks about “Lutherans,” he is parodying one particular slice of Lutheranism, Norwegian Pietists. That bears no resemblance to Swedish Lutherans out of the Augustana tradition, or German Lutherans out of the Missouri Synod.
Similarly, the post WWII world we all grew up in took church membership for granted. The men and women of “the Greatest Generation” went off to fight for “God and Country.” It was the same thing, and still is for the religious/conservative Right in this country. When mainline denominations tried to get churches to take national flags out of the worship space it was very distressing for these vets. They did not recognize that sort of religion, and it lessened their loyalty.
In the same vein, in the 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s, church membership was required for acceptance in our culture. It was where you made business and social contacts. It was frowned upon to not be in church on Sunday morning. There were few activities scheduled on Sunday mornings – no sporting events, and stores were closed under what were called “blue laws.” Anyone remember those?
Church was often people’s primary social circle. Think of a stay-at-home mom (what used to be called a “housewife”); and what was her most frequent, regular, and justifiable reason to get out of the house? Was it not church? In rural areas was not the church circle, ladies aid, or mission society a major source of social contact? Women and men in the workforce and social swirl of modern life are seldom short of social stimulation, even if much of it is shallow or virtual.
Moving from his analysis of changing social factors outside the church to changing theological trends that have been shifting inside the church for the last century or so, my father brings the conversation even closer to our present reality. He writes,
We assume that declining numbers in mainline churches mean they are failing in some way. I would contend that it is a sign that they have been successful in getting their message out. What do I mean? What were the most common complaints thrown at the church in the third quarter of the 20th century?
- It is narrow minded.
- Each group thinks it is the only one that has the truth.
- Each denomination thinks it is the only one whose members are going to heaven.
- You all bad-mouth each other and can’t work together.
- You are hypocritical; you are all talk and no action on real social issues like race, sex and poverty.
To the extent that Mainline denominations have convinced people that they do NOT think they are the only ones with the truth, that much good work is done by non-Christians and even atheists, that attending church is not the most important thing a person of faith can do, that salvation does not consist of adherence to a certain set of doctrines, that our knowledge of God is only partial, incomplete, and depends to a great extent on our own personal experience and socialization – Postmodern thought and philosophy – to the extent that we have convinced people of these things, we have succeeded in convincing them that attending church is not that important. To the extent that we have failed to convince them, they still see the five critiques [I listed earlier] as operative, and so have contempt for religion.
If you look at cultural trends for the last 50 years, I defy you to find one that is helpful and friendly to church
attendance. I am not talking about faith issues or religious belief; I am talking about our lifestyles and life-realities. All you would need to do is read my email: “Sorry I didn’t make it to church this morning, my parents dropped in from out of town.” “We are going to my parents this weekend.” “College friends are visiting for the weekend.” “I am taking my daughter on a tour of potential colleges this weekend.” “We are going to close up the lake house.” On and on and on.
A recent issue of The Christian Century said that people who report that they attend church “regularly” today mean once or twice a month. “Regularly” used to mean nearly every week. I can attest from personal experience that this is true. Almost no one is in church every week now, and they are not just staying home. They are going somewhere. Or it is deer season, show choir season, they have theater tickets…
We all know what actually works to get people to come to church and be loyal in attendance: fear and an enemy. Convince people that there is a serious threat to their lives and the things they value and convince them that their church is the only thing standing between them and total disaster. You may think I am talking about the contemporary cultural/religious climate in this country, but I would contend that is always the situation when and where the Christian Church grows. People who feel safe and secure have no need for religion – or for God for that matter.
So there are a few things to add to the pot of your thinking and stir into the mix.
You might be wondering if I ever ended up adding my own thoughts to this conversation. Given my father’s capacity for lengthy responses, and the possibility that it might be genetic, you might be worried that I did, and you will have to listen to all of them. Well, I did, but they were brief. I commented,
In partial answer to Carol’s question about whether or not a path back to relevance exists for the church, I would say (somewhat pithily, I know) that I suspect the path can only lead us forward, never back, and that much of the sturm and drang in the church comes from people’s wish that we would return to some other time in the life of the church. That has never been God’s way though. The church of the 20th century looked nothing like the church of the 16th century or the 11th century or the 3rd century or the 1st century. God is always reaching out to the world in ways we can see and ways we cannot, and our grief sometimes looks to me like a lack of faith that God will continue to find ways of breaking through our love of order and our commitment to structures that were never supposed to be the object of our affections, but signposts pointing us to the source of all love. Or, to push the envelope of pith, the church has sometimes been described as nothing more than one beggar telling another where to find bread. I trust that will continue to happen, regardless of the fate of the mainline Protestant church.
I ended on that note, full of ominous foreshadowing for the fate of the Protestant church, because I believe we are living in a time of reformation, like the one from the 16th century that created the Lutheran church, and which we celebrate today. The 16th century was a time of massive upheaval in politics, technology and religion, and by the end of the century all of the givens of kingdoms and the Roman Catholic church and the class structure had been completely upended. We are living in a similar time today, and I think we are only about halfway through our century of revolution.
As a denomination there is no denying that we are shrinking. Earlier this month the ELCA had to let go of almost 20% of its staff in a reorganization that will leave synods and congregations holding more responsibility for the types of work we used to rely on the national church to do on our behalf – social justice work and global mission. Those layoffs came on the heels of massive cuts last year, and there is no reason to think that the trend will not continue. These layoffs were the only responsible choice the church could make, given that benevolences from congregations had decreased by half in the last two decades. Those decreases can be traced back to the earlier descriptions of changing trends in church attendance. As people have found other sources of community, connection and meaning for their lives, the church has lost its place of privilege in people’s charitable giving.
We have lived that story out in miniature here at St. Luke’s. Although the last four years have hidden our financial situation by virtue of the reserve fund for redevelopment created by the sale of our parsonage, the story of declining numbers over the past generation is familiar to us here. As the last of our reserves are spent this year and next, we will face hard decisions just like the rest of the church has.
Psalm 46, which the choir sang for us so beautifully this morning, and which is the basis for Luther’s beloved anthem of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which we sang at our gathering this morning, has been a source of strength and solace for me this week as I have considered the mighty transformations taking place in our church.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult… God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46 tells the truth about what we in the church are living today. It is a hard truth, but it is the kind of truth-telling Jesus says will set us free from our slavery to the past. The nations are in an uproar, the given truths about church and society are tottering, the foundational understandings about how church will be organized and what it will look like going forward are shifting under our feet. Yet in the midst of all this, what is not changing is God’s commitment to God’s creation, to the city, to the people, to you and me.
For most of my life, Reformation Sunday has been a time of looking back at who we are as Lutherans with pride (and nostalgia). From here on out though, and not just for us Lutherans – but for the whole church – I think we must commit ourselves to looking forward. The temptation will be to lose heart, to give up, to assume that we are going the way of the institutions as they fall around us. The LORD says, “be still, and know that I am God!” Something is ending, yes, to be sure. Something always is. But something is also emerging, and we get to be a part of that. We get to be a part of the Great
Emergence that, perhaps, our descendents will look back on with pride hundreds of years hence, as they gather for worship, whatever that looks like then, to celebrate the new thing that God is always doing in the world.
The LORD of hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our stronghold.