Would you miss your church if it closed?
This thought-provoking question was posed by one of the foremost Protestant religious leaders when he visited the pre-Civil War St. John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit last week. (For full disclose, I not only attend the church in question but also serve on its vestry, aka board of directors.)
The question came from Lord George Carey, who in his capacity as archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 until retirement in 2002 was spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, would have been seen by some as controversial not long ago.
But it wasn’t, not least because it came only days after the release of a major Pew report that revealed hashtag-epic declines among the once dominant mainline churches that in so many ways defined American life for most of this country’s history.
Among my own denomination, the Episcopal Church’s fall is hardly a secret, as Episcopalians everywhere have seen their church decline since the 1970s.
There are many reasons cited for the collapse of what was once the closest thing to a state-established church in America.
There’s no doubt that deep theological shifts — in particular left-of-center politics moving the national church beyond orthodox theology and churchmanship — are at least partly to blame. Then there is the whole gay issue, which has divided Anglicans domestically and resulted in major schisms and multi-million dollar lawsuits over church assets and buildings.
Case in point: When was the last time you actually read something positive about Episcopalians? Seriously. Pretty much every major news item these days is a report over a lawsuit, schism or controversial theological change.
While all of the above are without a doubt culprits in the great Episcopalian decline — much the same can be said for other mainline Protestant denominations in the Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions — it isn’t entirely accurate.
At my own church, we’re actually growing. And the new members are hardly the stereotypical little old church ladies. In fact, the newcomers are pretty much all under the age of 40, which defies popular wisdom across denominational lines.
Some are lifelong Episcopalians. Others come from different traditions. Some are unchurched. Together, all share a craving for traditional churchmanship of the sort that many big names in popular Christianity dismiss as stuffy and old fashioned.
While older generations think in-house coffee shops, praise bands, drop-down video screens in lieu of hymnals and all sorts of entertainment-centric forms of worship attract millennials, the reverse is actually true.
Traditional liturgy, hymns and even organ music all combine to create a heavenly atmosphere for worship that stands apart from what is found in many, if not most, Protestant churches today.
Even within Episcopalian and breakaway Anglican churches it’s increasingly difficult to find traditional liturgical worship. And if such a service is offered, it’s typically relegated to 8 o’clock on a Sunday morning, which is hardly the greatest time to fill the pews.
Nevertheless, large numbers of millennials are deserting contemporary churches for the sort of church experience their generation has largely never experienced. Similar trends are evident in commerce, where millennials are also rediscovering quality craftsmanship and valuing heritage brands.
This brings me back to Carey’s point.
How many churches would truly be missed if the doors closed on a Sunday afternoon were shut for good?
Your guess is as good as mine.
What I will say is we need to rethink church.
Like it or not, church desperately needs to find its place in the second half of the second decade of the 21st Century. It no longer owns Sunday.
Limiting worship to an hour on a Sunday morning hardly makes sense in this day and age.
Unfortunately, that’s too often the case with many churches, as visitors and congregants are greeted with locked doors on pretty much every other day of the week.
All this makes fulfilling the great commission pretty difficult.
— Dennis Lennox