by Pastor Doug Kings

The feature article of this month’s Living Lutheran is titled They May Not Come Back. Who is “they”? The people who were regular worshipers before the pandemic but have not returned. The article’s author, Luther Seminary professor Dwight Zscheile, describes the situation:

When in-person worship resumed last year, congregations across America saw significant decreases in their pre-pandemic attendance rates, … in some places, 40% or more. There are multiple reasons for this: some people are still concerned about safety as the pandemic continues, some prefer online worship even when in-person is offered, and others have simply walked away. No one is sure how things will settle, but I suspect the pandemic has accelerated a deeper cultural shift that was already long underway.

I think Zscheile is correct. His numbers match our experience and his assessment of why people have not come back sounds about right. Zscheile’s last statement is also important. As I’ve written before, we are in a decades-long decline in religious involvement. As he says, the pandemic has very likely accelerated that trend.

Zscheile goes on to give a helpful “big picture” view of what is going on in American culture. For most of its existence, the country was in what has been called an “Age of Association.” People found meaning in their lives by belonging to countless types of voluntary organizations. Churches adopted this same model, replacing the European pattern of state churches where you were automatically a church member at birth, to one where you chose to join a church.

Beginning in the 1960s, the culture began to transition to an “Age of Authenticity.” Now, Zscheile says,

people focus on discovering and expressing their true selves, not affiliating with or serving institutions. In fact, institutions are regarded with deep suspicion. In the Age of Authenticity, people can leave voluntary associations and institutions without embedding themselves elsewhere. Things are far more fluid, and identity springs less from a web of institutions (family, neighborhood, career, etc.) than from a series of individual choices….

If you talk to leaders of other voluntary association systems—scouting, labor unions, service organizations―you’ll hear the same story. This isn’t just the church’s problem—it’s a larger cultural transformation.

This causes enormous loss and grief, particularly in older generations for whom the Age of Association model worked well. Many congregations are being sustained by faithful elders who know how to build, serve and sustain voluntary associations. They puzzle at why their children and grandchildren aren’t interested in affiliating and participating.

After this helpful analysis, Zscheile unfortunately falls flat in describing how the church should respond. He says it needs to “think outside the box” but provides no content to fill out that cliché.

The church should embrace the huge opportunity the Age of Authenticity provides to share the gospel in a culture where people are told to go their own way and find their own meaning, purpose and community. This age is full of yearning for deeper connections than those facilitated by social media, for more adequate stories than those provided by consumerism, and for more just and sustainable ways of patterning human life than people see around and within themselves.

An “opportunity to share the gospel” has been the church’s typical response to a situation it doesn’t understand. What “the gospel” means isn’t explained, at least not in terms relevant to the contemporary world. Apparently, that’s a door we don’t dare open. Zscheile continues:

The core practices of Christian faith and community must endure, but their organizational expression will need to change. We don’t yet know what this will look like. It will require a lot of experimentation….

It sounds as if the church believes that what’s inside the box (“core practices … must endure”) is fine. We just need to improve the packaging (“organizational expression will need to change”). But the last thing the church needs is yet more re-organization. In any case, I think Zsheile is on the right track when he concludes that we need to listen.

This involves investing presence and relationship in community spaces where people already spend time (both virtually and physically) so that we might listen to their stories and learn how to connect the gospel with their longings and losses. It involves learning how to embody the richness of Christian spirituality in simple, accessible practices that people can see in ordinary lives and try on for themselves.

Setting aside the over-the-top verbiage, this is the church’s challenge today: talk to people, genuinely listen to their stories, and take them seriously, without pushing those stories into our theological pigeonholes.

The title of our current discussion book, Experiencing God Directly, is a theme that runs through many of the books we have read the past few years. People believe there is a sacred dimension to life and to the world but want to know more about how to experience it in their ordinary lives. What people have much less interest in is experiencing God in specially set aside spaces and times like worship in a church building.

At the risk of falling into cliché myself, I think the church needs to rediscover Jesus. Not the Jesus that was “pedestalized” (a great description by Alan Watts) by the church in its early centuries into the Lord and Savior of the world. Rather it needs to reconnect with the Galilean preacher of the gospels.

This Jesus only occasionally visited religious buildings (and then usually caused a commotion) but mostly met people on the streets and in the countryside. He didn’t expound on scripture or theology but “taught with authority.” He told people in simple language that God was present here and now if we had “eyes to see”, and that the “secret” to life was to let go of it and live by faith and with love. This is an example and a message that still resonates, not because it necessarily leads back to church, but because it shines a light on the path to what Jesus described “abundant life.”

Blessings in your life and ministry.