The Church in Decline and…Gratitude?

Christianity in North America is enduring a steady decrease in the number of adherents who claim membership in a church. Surveys of religious affiliation show that the disappearance of people is not limited to one or a handful of Churches. Congregations have been forced to close their doors in various parts of the country, selling their properties to non-religious communities.

University professors of theology are also noticing the change. Increasingly, theology courses are filled with students who have never or rarely attended church, are unfamiliar with the Bible, and have no intention of joining a religious community. To be sure, religious “nones” or “dones” are not necessarily hostile to theology – some exhibit keen interest and are able to engage course material competently – but there are no signs of a revival on the horizon for many Christian communities in America. The demographics do not promise an awakening on the basis of increased birth rates any time soon, especially as rigid confessional loyalty becomes a thing of the past.

Church leaders are responding to the swift changes in a variety of ways. I will not cover them all here, but will instead focus on how leaders form responses through the liturgy.

A popular approach to addressing the disappearance of people from the Churches is to change the liturgy to bring people in. There is nothing new or wayward about enhancing hospitality through the liturgy – it is the event at which God’s word is proclaimed, and God becomes present, voluntarily, to those who gather. “All are welcome” is neither a refrain, nor a cliché – for many communities, it is a sincere invitation to all to come and feast at the Lord’s table – even if those responding to the invitation are unbaptized and are in a Christian church for the first time.

Changing the liturgy to meet the needs of the people is a go-to strategy of liturgical reform, both for those who are in the Church, and to evangelize visitors and people on the periphery.

Personally, I have favored this approach for a number of reasons. The liturgy has always evolved throughout history, just as people, and the ways they work, live, learn, and communicate change. Liturgical golden ages are illusions – we don’t really know how golden the past was, and the more one reads history, the more one hears the frustrations of bishops and pastors with impoverished liturgical performance and the lack of engagement by the people.

My interest in liturgical reform has evolved. I’m convinced that we have become so obsessed with texts, that we are neglecting the liturgy as a multifaceted event that is much more than text, especially what we say to and about God. My wish for my native Orthodox community is that we would become people who love God’s word, that we would revise our lectionary so that there is more Bible at the liturgy, better preaching, and catechesis focused on hearing God’s word.

I used to believe that Churches honoring God’s word and emphasizing hearing it during liturgy, and bearing God’s word after the liturgy, would connect organically with evangelism. Word-centered communities will attract people, because what people really thirst for is that God would speak to them.

I’m no longer convinced that creating communities that love the Word of God will bring in new members.

To be sure, there are liturgical revisions communities can make that will attract people. Engaging music, strong programs of youth and adult ministries, and encouraging people to meet one another socially will bring people in. People want their kids to engage in activities, they want to learn, and they want to meet other people.

While I continue to support healthy liturgical reform, I have gained a new appreciation for the notion that Christians are the ones who need to be reformed to come to appreciate the liturgy.

Do not confuse this statement with a definition of liturgy as unchanged and unchanging.

On any given Sunday, one can take issue with some aspect of the liturgy. The pastor’s preaching is uninspiring. The singers make the same mistakes. The music is not uplifting. The prayers are banal, and not sufficiently inclusive. The liturgy lacks references to social crises. The children are not engaged. Leaders are unprepared, do not show up, or make glaring mistakes.

One can refer to any one of these situations as an excuse to stay home. And many people do just that – they stay home, sleep in, take their kids to sporting events, watch a game, catch up on domestic tasks, and work. They perform these tasks instead of attending liturgy because they have the freedom to decline church attendance. They stay home or do something else because they can.

Those who attend church have the same freedom as those who refrain. They go to Church because we can. They, too, have the freedom to attend, but something compels them to go to church. They may be committed to a specific task – playing an instrument, singing in the choir, assisting in the sacristy. Beneath it all is a testament, the words of the Lord: ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Some embrace the freedom that permits them to gather, hear God’s word, praise God, and receive God’s body and blood at the table.

I was raised in a medium-sized Orthodox immigrant parish, and remember most of the children my age who attended Church and Church school. By the time I was eighteen, over 90% of those children had largely disappeared from regular Church attendance, with the exception of major holidays, weddings, baptisms, and funerals. I used to think that introducing English to the Liturgy would keep young people in Church, but many of the congregations closing throughout the United States have been anglophone for a while now.

In a private moment, I asked my grandfather – the pastor of this émigré parish – why we were experiencing such steep decline. I expected him to respond that we needed English, but he surprised me. He said, “too much sausage. People have too much sausage. If they were hungry, unemployed, and fighting to provide for their families, they’d be at church. Why come to church to ask God for food when our refrigerators are full and we have everything we need?”

He had survived a terrible famine in Ukraine, often going days and weeks without eating in 1932-33, when Stalin tried to bring Ukrainian landowners to their knees in his collectivization program. My grandfather had experienced it all – hunger, homelessness, fear, and the ghastly violence created by fear and indifference.

His refrigerator was always full, but I wouldn’t call his life in the United States “easy.” He struggled to make enough money, endured ridicule for being “different,” and took jobs others did not want to pay those bills. They went to church regularly even in the worst of times, and did not stop when forced to deal with the untimely deaths of children, and when parishioners turned on them. I always sensed that he was deeply grateful for his life, and in particular – for the freedom to gather and worship, a freedom of which he was deprived during his youth in Soviet Ukraine.

Among the things he passed on to me that I treasure most was his witness. His imperfections were many, but they do not matter – the gratitude for the freedom to worship I witnessed in him was sincere and steadfast.

Returning to the Christian decline of our times, it seems to me that those of us who wonder about the future vitality of our Churches have one positive thing in common: we have the freedom to gather and worship, and we therefore have the freedom to offer thanks for that freedom, and for those whose witness inspires us to participate in our Church’s liturgy, despite its human imperfections.

A renewed fidelity to gather and worship because we are free to do so, and to be thankful for our witness does not guarantee that we will be on the precipice of a grand new Christian awakening. We may not be able to boast of major financial gains and double-digit increases in membership. Some of us might have to sell our property and assemble in modest spaces. Many clergy will have to work full-time while presiding at Liturgy on Sundays and holidays. The liturgy itself will require an adjustment to these inevitable changes.

Even if all of this comes to pass, there is still space for good news. Christians will still be responding to Christ’s words, ‘do this in remembrance of me’. Opportunity always comes with change, even when the changes feel like a defeat. The opportunity for Christians who continue to gather to give thanks despite decline is to reflect on their witness. When greeting visitors, do they hope to gain new members to sustain the viability of their institutions? Or will they be thankful for visitors who come, but do not return? Will they convey the same degree of love and welcome to those who will always be on the parish’s periphery and attend only on Christmas, Easter, or some other special occasion?

These challenging times present a reminder that authentic Christian viability cannot be confined to masses of people, ambitious programs, and glorious edifices. Christ is no less present in smaller communities with modest spaces consisting of people who gathered because they were grateful for the freedom to worship, and learned how to love others enough to share their joy and gratitude with them unconditionally.    

One comment

  1. A very interesting posting. Have you considered the impact of the internet and its provisions for worship?

    For years I’ve listened to BBC Evensong on radio and now through the net. I also enjoy the various webcasts from S. Thomas in NYC with Sarum elements. Lately I’ve been fascinated by the vigil services from the Russian Orthodox cathedral in DC with its use of Slavonic and English. ( I’m also impressed with their rector. Yes, he often stands robed in gorgeous vestments in the holy place but at times can be seen up in the choir loft assisting the musicians. )

    These are only a few samples of live services that I’ve encountered. I do believe that the internet and whatever replaces it offer tantalizing possibilities for all denominations. Perhaps this is the way to extend what Unitarians call the church of the wider fellowship.

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