The Universal Notebook: The decline of church, a sermonette

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This little reflection on the future of church (mine, yours and many others) in an age of declining church membership is a revised version of a sermonette I delivered as part of the June 2 Laity Sunday service at First Parish Church, United Church of Christ, Yarmouth.

What I did not tell my fellow worshippers on Sunday was that I have remained a lifelong member of the Congregational Church more out of sheer obstinacy than anything else, that I just think one should be able to find spiritual sustenance in the religion of one’s birth, that I’d probably be a Buddhist if I were true to what I really believe, that despite the sham and shame that drive many people away from organized religion, I have a progressive’s passion for changing things for the better, that I believe all religions are an expression of the same human urge to understand existence, and that whatever the failings of Christianity, I still find the Ten Commandments a useful guide for an ethical life and the life of Christ one worth emulating – even if very few Christians, myself included, actually do so.

My little lay sermon was largely inspired by a talk I attended on April 30 at the Congregational Church in Cumberland. The Rev. Steve Lewis, former academic dean at Bangor Theological Seminary, spoke on the future (or lack thereof) of church. The fact that Bangor Theological Seminary just folded up its tent after 200 years of training ministers suggests the parlous state of the church.

Lewis tolled the mournful numbers like an insurance actuary calculating the life expectancy of an aged and infirm policyholder. I wasn’t taking notes, so I don’t have the numbers, but the decline of local churches went something like this: Attendance at churches everywhere is down, young families are not joining churches, Sunday mornings are no longer sacrosanct, church buildings are becoming burdens to dwindle congregations of old folks, churches are being sold off and divinity schools are closing.

Tell us something we don’t know.

First Parish in Yarmouth does have a stable and healthy membership, but it is hard to find anyone under 40 in the sea of gray, white and bald heads in the pews.

“How do you expect to get other people’s kids to go to church,” Lewis asked at one point, “if you can’t get your own kids to go?”

As an apostle of the emerging church, a kind of Christian liberation movement of people disillusioned with the institutional church and looking for alternative ways to live their faith, Lewis suggested that churches will inevitably die off, but Christianity will live on in new forms: discussion groups, prayer groups, small celebrations, mission groups, social services organizations, peace action initiatives, fellowship groups.

We already have all these things at First Parish.

Lewis also noted a national spike in church attendance following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, but pointed to the fact that attendance fell away again shortly thereafter as a sign that churches have lost their staying power. Being a contrarian, my more positive view would be that the immediate spiritual needs of the worshippers had been met and that they will be back when perhaps there is nowhere else to turn.

Lewis suggested that the one hope churches have is some great upheaval in the modern world. Adversity tends to inspire fidelity. And I think he may be right about that.

While survivalists and preppers are busy hunkering down and bunkering in against future threats from economic collapse, environmental disaster, social disintegration, and all manner of man-made and natural calamities, I believe that we stubborn few should be prepping for some of those same conditions by keeping the faith and keeping our churches open.

Let others build private bunkers, stockpile food and water, and arm themselves against the marauding hordes of the Apocalypse. Our job as people of faith – of any faith – is to help those in need, to be a beacon of hope in troubled times for people in search of consolation, celebration, thanksgiving and forgiveness.

If I’m wrong, and institutional churches do outlive their usefulness, the old New England churches with their tall steeples may go the way of manned lighthouses, becoming charming relics of a bygone era.

I’m betting not.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.