For more than 80 years I have gone to church nearly every Sunday. But because of the coronavirus I haven’t attended church in well over a year and a half.
Churches have struggled to remain active and relevant when members cannot come out and fill the pews. With the proliferation of vaccinations, we are told that we may gradually return to more normal patterns, whatever they may turn out to be.
A recent Gallup Poll suggests that the future is not very bright. Church attendance has been steadily declining since the turn of the century and, for the first time since Gallup has been recording it, fewer than half of Americans report belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque. And it is likely that this trend will continue.
Perceptive church leaders have noted this and have wrestled with strategies to restore vitality to our churches. Evangelicals call for nationwide prayer for revival, urging people to a saving faith in Jesus. Others recommend a more active program of reaching out to meet the moral and spiritual vacuum of our modern culture.
Retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong wrote a provocative book titled “A New Christianity for a New World,” suggesting that we need to abandon our traditional view of a theistic, parental God. Another pastor, Mike Regele, in his book “Death of the Church,” maintains that we ought to let the church die. From this death will come new life, but in forms we cannot predict.
I am glad that I am no longer an active pastor. I am a child of the 20th century and functioned pretty well back there in those dark ages. But our world has evolved, while our churches generally have not.
We are hoping that our churches will emerge from the pandemic in much the same form as they held before: pews filled with worshippers, offering plates filled with money, Sunday School teeming with children and a belief system tied to a Bible that was written 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. But the Gallup poll reveals that our younger generations aren’t responding to our traditional church models and belief systems.
During the more leisurely days when the pandemic kept us confined to our homes, I decided to read the Bible again “from cover to cover.” But I tried to read it as an outsider, unfamiliar with its contents.
I wondered how the writers could so confidently describe God and quote his words so accurately. I wondered how God could call Abraham to be a light to the nations, and then send him and the chosen people to the Promised Land where he commanded them to destroy entire populations who already occupied that land. Not much light there. The Israelites never actually wiped out the populations who lived there, but co-existed in an anxiously hostile atmosphere.
While God expected that the people of Israel would live their faith in such a way that their neighbors would convert to the worship of Israel’s God, for the most part it seemed to work the other way. Israelites were attracted to “idol worship,” the religions of their neighbors.
Maybe this is the lesson that the Gallup Poll is teaching us. Perhaps Christian churches aren’t living the faith they profess, and are failing to adapt to the realities of life in the 21st century.
Jesus lived a life of love and compassion, and taught us how to live rather than what to believe. Most young people of our century cannot relate to traditional Christian teachings that stress the “thou shalt nots.” Many of the acts that were forbidden in biblical times are common practice today. The husband no longer rules the home, women are not silent and subservient in our churches, sexual mores and culture are quite different, and the simple practice of going to church obviously doesn’t appeal to a majority of Americans. Indeed, in Europe church attendance had adopted this downward trend much before it became prevalent in America.
So as America slowly overcomes the virus, and as we return to a “new normal,” the churches stand to benefit from the revelations of the Gallup Poll.
While we have been excluded from worshiping as a group, we have learned to use electronic media more effectively. We have responded to needs in our neighborhoods, taking food to the hungry, and, when possible, funds to those whose income was lost. We have become acquainted with those who are different from ourselves, and are becoming aware that we are all human beings and children of God.
If churches are to move forward in the post-virus era, we will become more creative in reaching out rather than just trying to bring people in. Perhaps we will force Gallup to add a new question to its poll: “How many ways has the church touched your life in the past year?”
Harry Bronkar is a retired Baptist minister living in Seven Lakes. Contact him at email@example.com.