"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Can Church Ever be Cool? (Sunday, September 18, 2011)

            Sometimes, I worry that I am going to click on a web link, and read my own obituary. Well, not mine, necessarily—but certainly that of my profession, or of the church I serve, or of churches in general.

            Times and trends change so fast. Who would have imagined back in (say) 1993—the year I came here to Stoughton—the kind of list we shared earlier: Twenty Things—once very important and “cool” things—that have became irrelevant (or nearly irrelevant) in the years since: everything from VCRs to watches, from travel agents to bookstores.

           Remember when Borders was the epitome of “cool”? You could buy books (hardcover ones, not digital editions) and CDs (that’s another thing that’s going fast) and—yes—videocassettes—and sip an overpriced cappuccino to boot. It didn’t get any cooler than that!

            Now, it’s bye-bye Borders: the last Boston store closed three days ago; the last few remaining stores anywhere are slated to close down by the end of this month. If I were the CEO of Barnes & Noble, I don’t think I’d be getting very much sleep these days.

            And what about the U.S. Post Office? Never exactly “cool” perhaps, but certainly important—indeed, a cornerstone of our nation for many, many years. The Post Office teeters on the brink of insolvency, and some seriously question whether it will even survive. All because of the changing habits of the past ten or twenty years: no more first class letters; no more postage stamps; no more Post Office. Chalk it up to email and digital messaging-- and a good stiff dose of more efficient competition.

            So, where does that leave the church?

              The church in which I grew up (and where, actually, I began my work in the ministry and was ordained), the First Universalist Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, doesn’t exist (as a church) any longer. A few years ago, with its congregation dwindling to just an increasingly elderly handful of the steadfast; its endowment just about all dried up; the community in which it existed completely changed from what it once was—the people of First Universalist in Woonsocket sold their building to another civic organization, the American-French Genealogical Society, which (as the name implies) houses archives and records for the rather sizeable Franco-American community in Woonsocket, and throughout the area.

            It is a most worthwhile organization, which offers some excellent programs, and does some very good work. Indeed, Elizabeth and I are members (though I admit that the name “Symynkywicz” sticks out like a very un-French sore thumb among all the “Lamoreauxs” and “LaPlantes” and “Lamontaignes” on the membership list!) But Elizabeth has some interest in studying her French-Canadian roots (if not enough time to pursue it in as much depth as she might like), and I really enjoy tagging along and browsing through the archives at the society. So we’re members—and we have visited the headquarters of the society—the old Universalist Church in Woonsocket—on several occasions.

            And whenever I am there, I am struck by how familiar that space feels, even after all these years. I remember the floor plan of the building, down to each nook and craNny, each closet and stairwell. I didn’t have to ask where the men’s room was—or the kitchen—or the fire extinguishers, for that matter, in case there was a fire.  I just remembered; I just knew.

            That’s because we spent an awful lot of time at that church when I was growing up. Not because my family was especially religious (we weren’t; we were Universalists, after all—then Unitarian Universalists, and “religiously fanatical Unitarian Universalist” is about as close to a perfect oxymoron as you can get!) Not because my father was a minister or a “pillar of the church” (he wasn’t; indeed, his Sunday religion of choice was golf; he was a Golfitarian, I guess.)  Not because I was being raised for the ministry, or because of some other special calling to be at church.

              No, we spent a lot of time at church because, simply, that is what (many) people did in those ancient days, forty or fifty years ago. Besides home or school, it was probably the place I was most likely to be on a given day or evening. I don’t think my experience was all that unusual. Churches were a focus of community life in those days:

                Just about everyone went to church on Sunday; there would even be lines of cars backed up, waiting to get into the parking lot of various churches around town. Men wore suits and women wore hats and (often) gloves, simply to show what an important part of their lives going to church was. Just about everything was closed—and the few business that did open on Sunday—drug stores, movie theaters, a few restaurants—stayed closed until Noon—until after church was over. Every day of public school began with the Lord’s Prayer; on Wednesdays, Catholic students were let out of school in the morning to attend religious education classes at their churches (which meant that we few Protestant kids had the whole school to ourselves). No one would have thought of scheduling football games, or soccer practice, or what have you, on a Sunday morning. It just wouldn’t have been done—because everyone was at church.

             But then, the world changed. Today, Sunday is just one more day of the work week for many; one more day of soccer practice; one more day to go to the mall. Moreover, Sunday represents a big chunk of whatever “discretionary” time the over-stressed, hype-busy families of today have.

            So, how is the church doing in the face of this radically changed world? The results are mixed.

                  Some churches have seen the bottoms fall out, as far as their membership numbers are concerned:

Between 1960 and 2005, the United Methodist Church lost about 24% of its members; the Episcopal Church about 33%; the United Church of Christ about 36%; membership figures for the Disciples of Christ declined by about 55%. Not a very pretty picture.

             But, on the other hand, some churches seem to be doing fine, or at least holding their own. During that same time period (1960 to 2005), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), almost tripled their numbers: from about 1.5 million members to about 5.6 million. The Southern Baptist Convention grew by 67%. For all of its newsworthy travails, membership in the Holy Roman Catholic Church in the United States increased by about 58% (fueled largely by an influx of immigrants from various countries).

               What about us? What about Unitarian Universalism? How is it doing in the face of these societal trends?

                Not too well, if the truth be told.

                 At the time of the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, there were approximately 265,000 adult UUs. Today, even though we are no longer hemorrhaging members like we were in the 1970s and 1980s-- there are only 165,000 adult Unitarian Universalists. Which, I’m afraid,  puts us down there with those other mainline denominations. Along with all other denominations, we’re also losing the battle for Sunday morning to the largest group of all—the approximately 100 millions Americans who are classified as “un-churched”—those who attend  no church whatsoever on a regular basis. The “un-churched” are now the largest single “religious” group in America—bigger than the Baptists, bugger than the Catholics, bigger than the Mormons, and a whole lot bigger than us.

               What is to be done, then, to stop “the church” from joining the next list of “20 Things that Became Obsolete in this Decade”? Is, somehow, a mega-dose of “coolness” in order to stem the tide of the church’s decline?

It’s tempting, certainly, for churches to give in to an “entertainment” mindset in order to be perceived as “cooler”—more relevant—more in touch with the world as it is today. One observer describes the scene:

             Three! Two! One! The countdown timer hits zero. The house lights go down. The stage lights go up. The screens flash an intro scene, and with a powerful riff from an amped-up band, the show has begun! Dozens of lights start criss-crossing the stage with electrifying movement. Colors undulate with the jolting syncopation of the drums. Spot lights blaze on the audience with blinding force. The pulsing rhythm, wild dancing, and screaming musicians have whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

            “But the show has just gotten started. Still to come, a comedy shtick from a funny guy, a dance lesson, a hilarious drama with a self-help theme, a few object lessons, and finally… the pastor comes whizzing in across the crowd from a zip line rigged from the rafters.

            “Welcome to the Entertainment Church.”

            “Church?” Tom Sawyer once exclaimed to his friend, Huck Finn. “Church? Why Huck, church ain’t shucks to the circus!”

            So in this age of cultural and social and political circuses, many people seem to believe.

            The temptation, then, may be for churches to try to become more like circuses—more “entertaining”, more “exciting”, more “relevant”.

            But, as another observer of matters religious has put it: “Relevance is a demanding lover. If you choose to chase after her, she will insist that the spectacle be bigger and better with each attempt to woo her or she’ll kick you to the curb… It’s getting harder and harder to keep her happy… With each passing Sunday, the show that [a church] has to put on to keep Relevance interested must be more flashy, and more glitzy, and more expensive…”

            I think that if churches pander to “Relevance”—to the need to be “cool”—they’re bound to fail. We can not meet this bread and circuses culture on its own terms. That’s not why churches are here.

            Which doesn’t mean that churches should (as they sometimes seem to) go out of their way to make themselves just as boring and detached and irrelevant as possible. That has certainly been the case of the mainline church (us included) too much of the time. Or. at least, that is how we are perceived.

            There is nothing wrong with creative worship experiences, engaging preaching, and good quality music and dance and artwork. That’s not pandering to “coolness”. That’s just trying to keep people awake.

            And remember: it’s a mixed bag, as far as church survival is concerned. Not all churches are in decline. For many people today, their churches matter as much in their lives as they ever did. Their churches provide, for many of these folk, the three R’s—three things so very important to modern men and women:

            They provide a sense of, yes, real relevance—of religion made real in their day-to-day lives.

They give people a sense of restoration. Our faith can restore our spirits. It can help us to get from Sunday to Monday; it can give us hope and courage and faith for life’s journey.

            And a living church can give its people a sense of relationship. It can provide some of that human touch in a world that has otherwise grown so cold and detached.

            Those are the three R’s of living, thriving churches—relevance, yes—but also restoration, and (most of all, perhaps) relationship. That is what churches need to flourish; not to be “cool” but to be real. That is what they need to offer to have a claim on surviving in this troubled, changing world.

            And those are not characteristics that are only for the Mormons. Or the Evangelicals. Or the Catholics. They can (and must) be part of our church’s calling, as well.

            That will take a willingness to embrace change in the ways in which we do things, and to learn to move much more quickly than churches so often do. Perhaps, we, too, could bear to remember the words of Pope John XXIII, addressed to his own church, at the Second Vatican Council: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”

            A garden of life which will need all the seasons of life in order to grow: seasons of warmth, and seasons of coolness, and always, the full engagement of our hands and hearts and minds and souls.


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