Non Present

By: Rev. Craig Shepperd

The current younger generations take a lot of flack concerning their lack of church attendance. I would agree to some degree it is concerning, but I think it is also a bit unfair. Here are two reasons why:

  1. Church attendance or even a lack thereof, does not ensure spiritual health. Diana Butler Bass has spent significant time studying decades of American Christian practices and outcomes. In her book, Christianity After Religion, she states, “American behavior continues its inconsistent failure to match self-reported (church attendance) [1]
  2. As a pastor of primarily an older congregation, I have come to discover these age groups are gone about as much as they are present.

They are mobile. They have grandchildren. They have business ventures. They have timeshares. They are also quick to ask, “Where are the younger generations?”

What do we mean by this question? May I propose that perhaps what we are asking is, “Who is going to run all the programs and pay the bills when we are gone?”

I am not sure this completely means when they pass away, but when they take a vacation, or they leave for the summer.  I have observed this occurring in the life of my own church and others. What is missed is not whether or not we will have a substitute Sunday school teacher, but the depth of community life. The absence that comes through relationships of accountability, and the engagement in one another’s lives has a deep impact on church life, as well as the development of community. Without a presence how are we to reenact the incarnation of Jesus as His body?

I speculate younger generations are asking a different question: “How can genuine, Christian community occur that makes a difference in my life, the life of my family, and for the sake of the world?” People vote in a variety of ways. Sometimes they vote with voice, but more often folks vote with their time and money. Perhaps their lack of presence reveals an overall discontent with the status quo. This is often interpreted as disrespect, rejection, apathy, or even laziness. However, I propose the discontent may be occurring because the status quo is not working anymore. At least it is not working as well as it did for those who grew up in it.

Discontent is the beginning of change. As we are currently navigating “doing” church differently through the COVID-19 Pandemic, as a pastor I wonder if some of the ways we are discovering will become the new norm.  Will creativity and desire for true Sabbath foster a move away from maintaining a church calendar full of programs and entertainment? While I would argue the church has a great opportunity to re-imagine its place and purpose, there is a potential for further detachment. However, in these moments we must reevaluate the discontentment we experience. Bass claims,

Only by noticing what is wrong, seeing the system and structures that do not foster health and happiness, can we ever make things different. If people were satisfied, there would be no reason to reach for more, no motivation for creativity and innovation. Discontent is one short step from the longing for a better life, a better society, and a better world; and longing is another short step from doing something about what is wrong. People are longing for new structures that resonate with and respond to their day-to-day experience, giving them a sense of participation and voice and a real stake in the future.[2]

Now, this sounds scary. Some of us immediately fear what we will lose. However, as has been well-documented, there is an actual desire to return to something quite old.[3]This something new,” Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests, “is faith, the profoundly personal response to the terror and splendor and living concern for God.”[4] Instead of departure, it is a Great Returning to ancient understanding of the human quest for the divine and true community. “Reclaiming a faith where belief is not quite the same thing as an answer, where behavior is not following a list of dos and don’ts, and where belonging to Christian community is less like joining an exclusive club and more of a relationship with God and others.”[5] Every generation is invited to experience God—to return to the basic questions of believing, behaving, and belonging—and explore each anew with an open heart. So, what might this look like?

Let’s begin by re-imagining the practices of our faith: prayer, scripture reading, service, contemplation, worship, etc. “Practices shape us to be better, wiser, more gracious people now, even as these very practices anticipate in our lives and communities the reality of God’s kingdom that has entered into the world and will one day be experienced in its fullness.”[6] These practices are not merely spiritual practices we do, but a way of being that enlivens and awakens us to the work of God in the world. Bass states, “Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and will be.”

Furthermore, we learn spiritual practices in community. This is where practices take root in order for this way of being to shape our day-to-day living. For Christians, spiritual community – a living, renewed church – begins with being in Christ. It is out of this relationship that we can be and are with one another bound by love. “This sort of belonging insists that the community must be a dynamic, ongoing love, a passionate romance between the divine and the mundane that seduces us into an intimate relationship with God, our neighbors, and our own deepest self.”[7]

I suggest we, the Church, may be guilty of social distancing way before the Center of Disease Control (CDC) mandated it. In a multitude of ways, we have been a non-present band marching to the beat of our own drum for some time. For us to re-imagine what the future looks like, perhaps the ultimate answer to believing, behaving (I prefer becoming), and belonging is found in the incarnated God who chooses to take on flesh, move into the neighborhood, and take up residence among us.[8] How might we do that? This is the question, and the hard work we must give ourselves to. Otherwise, we will continue to settle for the non-present, disengaged, and disconnected way of being, all the while calling it “church.”

[1] Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. (New York, NY: Harper One), 2012. 53.

[2] Bass. 84 and 85.

[3] Books like Growing Young, Almost Christian, and countless articles reveal upcoming generations’ desire to connect with social justice, the creeds, liturgy, and other mediums of worship of the historical church.

[4] Wilfred Cantwell Smith. The Meaning and End of Religion. (New York, NY: Macmillan),1962. 191.

[5] Bass. 99.

[6] Ibid. 159.

[7] Ibid. 196.

[8] John 1:14, The Message.

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