As we gathered today around Word and Table to keep the Lord’s Day, many of us will have noticed, as we increasingly do, that the congregation was small and the church rather empty. And those who did come were largely over 50 or 60 years old. Yes, some younger people, and some parents with children, but not a lot. High schoolers? Young adults? Hardly.
It’s shocking. And depressing. And fear-inducing. Where will we be in 10 years if this continues?
Then we regularly see headlines such as
- “Denomination X membership has declined by 20% in only Y years”;
- “Diocese X” is closing 75 parishes”;
- “Fewer than X% of Gen-Z Post-Millennials have a favorable image of church”;
and so forth, and on and on.
Where’s the hope? Where’s the joy? Where’s the reason to trust in God’s providence?
The place to start, I believe, is not with reassuring Happy-Talk, but with sadness.
It hurts to see so much decline and decay. It’s painful to contrast the present with our memories of 10 or 25 or 50 years ago. There is even bitterness. (When one diocese called its plan “Making All Things New,” I heard of someone calling it “Making All Things Disappear.”) We want to lament in the words of Psalm 42:5, “How I would lead the rejoicing crowd into the house of God, amid cries of gladness and thanksgiving, the throng wild with joy.” The crowds are gone now, the throngs are a distant memory.
The psalms are our friend in these struggles. The psalter is highly attuned to painful human emotions, and it does not shy away from expressing raw feelings of sadness, fear, and anger.
It is a fundamental dynamic of the psalter, over and over, that God moves us from sadness to joy, from fear to trust, from hardship to wellbeing. “At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.” (Psalm 30:6)
But we have to go through the night, long though it be. There are tears, and we have to cry them.
It is a basic human insight that we have to mourn and grieve in order to let go of what is gone. We have to feel the sadness in order to move toward acceptance.
In my experience – and I admit I’m not very good at crying or feeling sadness – it is only after a period of tearful letting go that I can accept painful reality. (St. Benedict refers to “prayer with tears of compunction” so readily in the Rule, it makes me wonder whether maybe 6th-century Mediterranean males weren’t more comfortable with emotions than Minnesota farm boys. Who knows?) After I’ve cried through the sadness – and this always comes as a surprise – I discover new joys in the unexpected future that begins to shape up before my eyes.
New joys? Really?
- Maybe a smaller community offers deepened experiences of fellowship and mutual support.
- Maybe the acoustics are less difficult in a smaller worship space, and you only need 3 singers to have great-sounding chant. (And a smaller group is easier to coordinate.)
- Maybe a smaller congregation can better sing unaccompanied in parts at times – with a little help from a few strong singers – and the experience is delightfully inspiring.
- Maybe it now becomes possible to have home-baked eucharistic bread and wine for all, and the communal experience is deepened of being drawn into the Lord’s self-giving sacrifice.
- Maybe the “other” becomes non-believers, rather than Christians of other traditions, and one comes to the ecumenical realization that “those Prots” or “those RCs” are really my allies.
- Maybe the realization that church-going Christians are a minority deepens one’s sense of Christian discipleship.
One way to avoid the tears – and also miss out on the new joys – is to stay stuck in simplistic blaming masquerading as analysis. Optionally, mix in some anger and sarcasm. When you’re angry, you feel so powerfully in charge … and you’re able to keep at bay the tears of sadness.
- “It’s vernacular Mass facing the people that drove them away.”
- “If we hadn’t given up the King James and the old hymnal, we would have kept our identity and staying power.”
- “They shut down the glory days of 1980s progressivism, and that explains our difficulties.”
- “The crisis of the church is at root a crisis of liturgy.”
Yeah right. Longing for a forever-gone past is so often a coping strategy of staying in one’s head, or perhaps in one’s anger, in order to avoid sadness. But it comes at a costly price. It prevents us from moving forward. (Constructive, fact-based analysis is another thing.)
“At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn.”
The Christian name for the movement from tears to joy is, of course, Death and Resurrection. Christian faith tells us that, precisely in the midst of church closings and a vocation shortage and denominational shrinkage , the Resurrected Lord is powerfully at work in unexpected ways.
Believe the promise. Accept the tears. Be open to new joys.