I recently went back, for the first time, to the congregation I last served as a full-time pastor. It had been a bit over three years since I’d seen most of the folks who were there for morning worship.
We didn’t have any trouble finding a place to sit. There were plenty of empty spots in the long, cushioned rows of pews. The choir was in good voice, that faithful remnant. The pastor had a decent sermon, though I can imagine any Bible or Fellowship church member who happened to be in attendance would have given it a 4 out of 10, maybe less, citing a lack of inspiration and passion and a dearth of good ol’ law. And probably not being long enough. It was all familiar to me, nonetheless, though I was a bit surprised to see that they’re still using the pre-packaged Communion elements and partaking from where they sit.
It was nice to be back in familiar confines, with familiar faces who seemed happy to see us. But a certain hollowness and fatigue are inescapable anymore—in the worship order itself, in the message and messaging that come across as obligatory formula. Honestly, I cannot shake the feeling that the whole enterprise is at risk of collapse.
It’s really no surprise why many mainline denominations are struggling, and for a while now. Not only is there nothing there for the kids, there’s not much for the adults, either. We’re painted into a corner by our own doctrine and traditions and old habits that die hard. I could have gotten into an animated discussion about why this congregation has lost membership and seen a stunning decrease in Sunday School activity, among other unwelcome trends, but it seemed like neither the time nor the place, ironically.
Let’s get the low-hanging fruit out of the way first: Covid-19 and peoples’ reaction to it changed things, or hastened the trends; a change in pastoral leadership can make a difference—either positively or negatively; youth and their families are simply finding other things to do, or they are migrating to churches that have “more to offer…” Not sure if this means a stronger sense of community, better music, hearing what you want to hear, being fed spiritually, or just being fed—with creature comforts and hot dogs and espresso drinks. Last but not least… I wasn’t exactly filled with the Spirit the last 3 or 4 years I was there. I wasn’t being an evangelist, firing people up, inviting others to come and see. I didn’t do my part in leaving them with any sense of momentum.
But beyond all those reasons, there is another that I find perhaps the most troubling and most compelling: the curtain is being pulled back, for all to see, on an enterprise that has benefitted from having its origins rooted in times of superstition and ignorance.
It’s hard for me to believe anymore– for all the reasons I used to dismiss when I was in the thick of things, standing behind the altar or in the pulpit, or sitting in a one-on-one with a struggling parishioner. People looked around and saw, in the macro, staggering pain and struggle in their lives and in the world, the senseless loss of life, an untimely death that befell someone who was too young, a health issue or relationship struggle that robbed someone of joy and the ability to function normally. Hunger, famine, war, inequity– a host of scourges and reasons and situations that echoed a certain desperation and hopelessness in a world where too much time had passed without prayers and questions being answered, where much seemed arbitrary and godless.
And all I ever had to offer in the way of comfort were the obligatory formulas– assurance that it was OK to be mad and sad, along with snippets of scripture from which I dared not stray, could never doubt and at the same time could never offer with anything approaching full confidence. The ancient edicts and promises rang ever more empty, grating against modern sensibilities, all made more acute by the passage of time in which nothing miraculous happened.
This isn’t about needing to try harder, or taking a closer look, searching out the miraculous in a baby’s smile or the growth cycle of a tree until we find God in those things. This is about wondering if we’ve been feeding ourselves a line for all these centuries, and facing the soul-crushing possibility that an enterprise that just has to have been built on something solid is actually nothing more than a construct of the human brain seeking solace and comfort, simply trying to make everything fit in an attempt at reconciling the discord and thr brevity of our earthly life.
I’m thinking that the best any of us can do, if we’re being honest, is to admit that we may want to believe, even try to believe– need to believe– but that most of the time it makes no sense. The data and life experience don’t support the long-held convictions anymore. Nor have they ever.
It’s a bitter pill– to think that the atheists may have been right all along.