There has been a lot of online bemoaning and complaining and analysis recently about the decline of the Christian church in the northern hemisphere. Whether it is the rise of the “Nones,” the popularity of Sports culture, the fact that people no longer feel obligated to attend worship every single week, or the changing demographic of America, there are a myriad of reasons given to explain the falling numbers. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter. Personally, I think it’s all of those things, AND a number of other things. There isn’t just one single reason why church membership is in decline.
Our society as a whole had changed dramatically, just in the past ten years. We are a mobile, consumer society, and we expect there to be an app for everything. Numerous churches have them! People don’t seem eager to join established institutions anymore. Why bother driving across town to sing tired off-key hymns with people your grandmother’s age, when you can sing along with praise songs on YouTube, and download the weekly sermon podcast? If you need to look up a Bible verse, there’s an app for that on your phone, which is connected to a social media group where you can leave a comment. (#biblerocks)
Church competes with professional football (both in stadiums and on TV,) youth soccer tournaments, and the latest gadgets and technology for our time and attention on Sundays. But it also competes with things like Burning Man and Comicon.
Last year, Burning Man saw a record 68,000 people in attendance. Read that number again and ask yourself when was the last time your denomination drew that many people to one place at one time.
What is Burning Man? According to the website,
“Burning Man is an annual event and a thriving year-round culture. The event takes place the week leading up to and including Labor Day, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert..… Participants dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance.
…Burning Man is not for the faint of heart, [but] with some research, preparation, and planning, an experience — and opportunity — beyond your wildest dreams awaits you. In Black Rock City, you’re guaranteed not to be the weirdest kid in the classroom. And you’ll become a part of the growing community of Burners who are active year-round, around the world … ensuring that the fire of Burning Man culture never goes out.”
Wow! Who wouldn’t want to be a part of an experience beyond your wildest dreams?
Burners, as the participants like to be called, abide by ten principles, such as welcoming the stranger, giving to others, cooperation, participation in artistic expression, and being concerned for the welfare of others. It is a temporary city – a community – of like-minded people with a common purpose. Their purpose may be to camp for a week, and then watch an effigy of a man burn to the ground, but it is still a purpose.
Similarly, Comicon is a gathering of people who enjoy comics (traditional, anime and manga), science fiction, video games, and the pop culture inspired by them. Held in cities throughout the world, Comicon has outlets for artistic expression (such as Cosplay; adults dressing up as a favorite character, like Worf from Star Trek, or Goku from Dragonball Z.) and an aspect of worship, focused on celebrities of the Comicon culture such as actors or writers. While Comicon may not have the over-arching unifying tenets of Burning Man or the Christian church, it fulfills the yearning for acceptance, and belonging. It is a community of like-minded people with a common purpose.
Sports teams, Burning Man, and Comicon all attract people who feel a need to gather and develop a community; a community made up of people like themselves, who accept them as they are, and allow them the opportunity to express themselves, and support others. Hmmm. Sounds a lot like what churches used to be!
I recently read an article by Gretchen E. Ziegenhals, which perfectly describes what a healthy church looks like. She says that despite the challenges that churches face today, there are vibrant local congregations that are thriving, and continue to be “bearers of tradition, laboratories of learning and incubators of leadership.” What surprised me most about her article wasn’t the fact that it was praising the tenacity of the local church. What surprised me was that it perfectly described the 75-member local church that my husband and I have recently started attending!
We moved into the community of Sonoita Arizona in June, and we have visited all four local churches. (Yes, all four. This is a small town. Actually, only two are physically in Sonoita; the others are in the towns next door – one to the east and one to the west.) None of the churches are of the Reformed tradition, but that isn’t an issue. Three of the churches were simply not a good fit for us, and so we decided to go back to Harvest Christian Fellowship.
This past Sunday we were warmly welcomed by at least 5 people as soon as we walked in the door. One woman, who couldn’t remember my name, hugged me nonetheless, and exclaimed, “I am SO glad you came back!” Two others made sure we were invited to the potluck meal following worship.
During the service, after songs were sung and prayers were offered, the pastor reminded the congregation to bring items for the clothing drive to benefit the battered women’s shelter in Tucson. Then he mentioned (almost in passing) that the congregation had noticed one of their members was in need of reliable transportation. He pulled an envelope out of his pocket that contained the title to a new car and presented it to a visibly shocked young woman, who simply melted in tears. This is a congregation that welcomes the stranger, notices those in need and simply helps others. It is part of their tradition, and their purpose.
After we sang several more praise songs, and an entire chapter of Galatians was read, the children were invited to the front of the worship space, where the Pastor prayed for each of them. Then the kids eagerly left together for Sunday school. This is a congregation that notices and welcomes children, and values learning – both for children and adults.
The latter part of the worship service was taken up with the Installation of Pastor Lisa, the new Associate Pastor. The Senior Pastor gave an overview of the Biblical grounds for her ministry, and also explained the years of education and training she had received. The Elders of the church laid hands on her head, and each one prayed for Pastor Lisa and the ministry she would accomplish there. This is a congregation that notices, calls and develops leaders.
Finally, my husband and I were escorted to the social hall for a potluck dinner, where we were introduced to more people, and given plates heaped with homemade enchiladas, salad, and chocolate cake. This is a congregation that deeply values community and good food.
So there are churches that are healthy and thriving, despite what the numbers claim. This one in particular only has 75 members, but in a town of about 2000 people with three other churches competing for them (not to mention football, Bible apps, youth soccer, Comicon and Burning Man) that gives me hope.