A bold initiative to pack the pews empties them

It is a sobering commentary on the contrariness of fate that the spiritual train wreck currently emptying America’s mainline churches started life 60 years ago as a bold new initiative aimed at packing the pews.

The 1950s Organisation Man was giving way to the Beat Generation, and the world stood at the threshold of the Swinging Sixties. The churches, struggling for relevance in an era of rock and roll, easy sex, and recreational drug use, set out to entice 20-somethings to 30-somethings back to the communion rail.

What was needed, the churches’ intellectual elite prescribed, was modern music and ‘swinging’ liturgies young people could ‘relate to’.

All in all, the strategy was about as successful, and as embarrassing, as my parents’ efforts at dancing ‘the Twist’. Come to think of it, it was one heck of a lot less successful and an awful lot more embarrassing—which is saying a very great deal.

My second sermon

My second sermon, by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896).

Liturgies ran from the mawkishly dull through the mawkishly banal to the mawkishly dull and banal. And the less said about the banshee wailing of singing nuns the better.

Predictably enough, a vast majority of the 20-something to 30-something target audience remained conspicuously absent, while folks who normally filled the pews increasingly found refuge from the cacophony in places like the golf course.

Sadly, all this damage was done in the vain hope of attracting a group of people who for more than 100 years had shown less and less inclination to attend church.

Repeal of the so-called ‘Blue Laws,’ which kept shops and places of entertainment shuttered on the Sabbath Day, was certainly a main contributory factor. Stores, movie houses, bars. and dance halls offered lively competition to sonorous sermons.

Doubtless, improved health care also played a role. Churches are invariably filled in times of great danger—a phenomenon most recently noted immediately after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Rapid strides in medicine, particularly during the latter half of the 20th Century, have fostered among westerners under the age of, say, 35 what amounts to a sense of immortality.

Barring accidents and acts of war, a vast majority of them can expect to see their 40th birthdays—and what’s the point of attending church if you’re immortal?

One might imagine that after a decade or so of failed experimentation, the churches’ leadership might have decided that it would be wise to throw in the towel, return to the old way that worked better, and analyse the nature of the debacle.

But that’s not the human way of doing things. Instead, they forged ahead with their failed program, piling theological and liturgical innovation upon innovation.

The upshot was that when the original members of the target audience were ready to return to the churches of their youth—namely, when they ceased to be immortal 20-somethings to 30-somethings—they found the churches so changed as to be unrecognisable.

As a consequence, many drifted back to the golf course; others to easy-going, non-denominational churches, more genuinely in tune with popular culture.

The trouble with this is that Jesus Christ’s Church is not, and should never seek to be, in tune with the popular culture. The church is a divine and eternal institution with a human mission, not—as so many folks today seem to assume—a human institution with a divine mission that is ultimately finite.

Jesus Christ’s Church is ‘in’ the world, but not ‘of’ it. It is the one changeless rock in a world of constant change. It is the sole repository of the eternal truth, our sole source of certitude and, thus, our sole source of true solace.

On the national and local levels, our churches should reflect this changelessness and certitude without which there can be no solace. And this cannot be achieved with a constantly changing liturgy, polity, and theology.

To be sure, the Church needs, as the Prayer Book puts it, to speak ‘in a language understanded of the people’. But this does not mean its language has to reflect that of television soap operas or the back of government forms. Far from it.

At worship, we are addressing the most mighty being in existence—a being whose power renders even the ‘shock and awe’ capability of the U.S. Armed Forces utterly insignificant. Our language and our behaviour should reflect this.

It is an aspect of God that is all too frequently overlooked in an age more attuned to singing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’.

True, Jesus is our friend, but he’s not the sort you’d invite to a bar for a couple of martinis and a hand or two of gin rummy. GPH✠

1 comment to A bold initiative to pack the pews empties them

  • Gail Ehrhardt

    Fr. Guy I am so thankful for the fact that you still address the problem. Miss you terribly on Sunday.