I was listening to a podcast which addressed the huge drop in church attendance in America this year. There was a pastor on who explained some of the statistics and the reasons why people aren’t returning to church: fear of getting sick during a pandemic, a break in spiritual habits and patterns, anger at the losses people have experienced this year and how those get translated into anger toward God. And I thought, well, yes, but then I waited for the pastor to address the elephant in the room, a central reason why many people who were so desperate for hope and help and spiritual guidance this year have not returned to physical worship in the church and may not return in 2021, or ever.
It’s because, when they looked for the kindness and mercy of Jesus in their time of need, when they needed Him so desperately in the midst of their personal trials and the chaos of 2020, they did not find Him in the church.
So many of the voices who represent the Christian Church in America could have used their voices in this time to lead a scared and needy flock, but instead used their platforms to raise up a political “savior”. They could have poured themselves into the physical needs of their parishes as the hands and feet of Christ, but instead amplified a fearful narrative centered on a singular political issue. They could have stood alongside our brothers and sisters who were fighting racial injustice in the streets but instead disparaged and insulted those same people, over and over.
It’s not that we didn’t need the peace of Jesus this year, God knows. It’s just that we’re not always sure where to find Him.
Churches are facing that reckoning now, in the absence of parishioner support. More worrisome are the scores of individual Christians who are now facing a God-shaped hole, a chasm in the wake of a missing faith practice they no longer trust the church to fill. Ask a Christian who might have been on the margins of regular church attendance pre-pandemic what they think of when they hear the word ‘church’. Then ask a regular parishioner. Ask your family members and friends. Local church leaders might find answers to this question shocking and telling for the future of the church in America. After all, if an individual Christian is more likely to equate ‘church’ with a political party, power or political figure, a cause or a movement instead of the Body of Christ, mercy, forgiveness, and service, we’re a church who has decidedly lost its way. The American church as we know it has been revealed and found wanting. A church that was already in danger by any statistical analysis is now experiencing a critical phase.
Since the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in April of 2019, I have seen parallels from the devastation and reconstruction of that grand building to the devastation and hope that might come, if we choose it, in the institutional church. In Notre Dame and in the church, there has been a burning and a loss that’s revealed structural flaws along with a great big mess to clean up. It’s overwhelming and painstaking work, and at each turn there are decisions to be made about just what among that wreckage we’d want to bring into the future of a newly built church, brick by brick, step by step, for the good and well-being of the flock. There’s opportunity here for the Holy Spirit to work and direct us, in movements some call the Emerging Church. In this movement, some of our Protestant sisters and brothers are discovering elements of older and essential contemplative Christian tradition. They’re turning to Lectio Divina, the Examen, and a practice of silence. They’re turning again to personal or group study of the Bible, of journaling, of spiritual direction, of letting the Spirit speak. It’s my hope that my Catholic sisters and brothers might find needed renewal in these same practices and more.
Because this is a church which desperately needs to be brought back to life. This is a church which needs revival. I have no doubt that the path ahead must include a focus on listening and helping each other encounter our living God once again. In His kindness, He’ll give us illumination for the path, opportunity for growth, treasures found in ashes. Because this is who He is. He’s a God of ‘re’ – renewal, revival, redemption, resurrection. He’s making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland right this very minute, and it’s us to decide to walk in it, or not.
In 2021, let’s walk it out together.
Note: If you’re in need of resources, books or music that you might use to jumpstart your spiritual practice in the year ahead, please reach out to me. I have lots of ideas!