Meeting Together – From the Daily Office – January 31, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 10:23-25 (NRSV) – January 31, 2014.)

Social Media Cartoon by NakedpastorAttendance is down. No one in the church really needs to be told this, although church ministry pundits have been making a good living for the last couple of decades reporting on it and diagnosing the reasons for it.

A recent New York Times op-ed piece pointing it out (and repeating a lot of old complaints that supposedly explain it) has been reprinted and shared electronically a lot the past few weeks; I must have seen it posted on Facebook at least twenty times.

It’s not news, however. Over the past several years (for a few decades, in fact) attendance figures in all mainline churches have been falling. Some congregations have bucked the trend, but even they are beginning to notice that fewer people are filling the pews, chairs, couches, or whatever seating alternative is provided.

For a while, the various denominations looked inward for the problem. My own Episcopal Church went through a period of fairly rapid change starting in the 1970s — prayer book revision, ordination of women, acceptance of LGBT persons, ordination of LGBT persons — which erupted in internal conflict. Episcopal pundits pointed to each of these developments, or to the conflict that arose over them, or to the allegedly heretical theology behind them and blamed these interiorities for declining memberships and lower attendance.

Being of a fairly ecumenical bent, I read the press from other denominations. During the same period of time the other American mainline churches were experiencing the same sort of decline and — guess what? — their denominational press was laying the blame at the feet of whatever their particular conflict du jour might have been.

Then along came a secular sociologist, Robert Putnam, who pointed out that it was happening across the board . . . and not only among churches! Fraternal and public service organizations, social clubs, and even bowling leagues were all experiencing the same sort of decline. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone graphically demonstrates the congruence of membership growth-and-decline curves for all organizations that depend on and sustain what he calls “social capital.” Every church leader should read it!

Unfazed, the church growth-and-decline “experts” are at it again, this time laying the blame at the feet of age cohorts. The ecclesial blogosphere is rife with punditry blaming the Boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y, or Millennials. And for every such essay there are a dozen or more answering pieces explaining why it isn’t “my generation’s” fault! It seems like everyone in the church is singing this old song by The Who from nearly 50 years ago:

People try to put us down
(Backbeat line: Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old

My generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
Don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

My generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
And don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

My generation
This is my generation, baby
My, my, my, my generation
My, my, my, my generation

People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
Yeah, I hope I die before I get old

My generation
This is my generation, baby
My, my, my, my generation
My, my, my, my generation

Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(My generation)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(My generation)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(Is my generation baby)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(This is my generation)

Somehow, somewhere someone is going to knock this off! Active church people have to stop pointing the finger of blame and start working with one another on solutions. We’ve had enough punditry diagnosing (or misdiagnosing) the causes — now we need to work on reframing the Christian message for a new generation that hasn’t heard it. In the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews we have to “meet together . . . encouraging one another.”

What “meet together” means in the 21st Century is another issue, however. With social media of all the various sorts, and newer versions developing nearly every day, and existing versions being tweaked and modified — Facebook seems to change hour by hour — it’s an on-going, and never-ending struggle to keep up and figure that out. But “meeting together” probably no longer means (as a colleague puts it) “butts in the pews.” “Average Sunday attendance” may have become a meaningless metric (if it ever was one).

There is value, of course, in face-to-face meeting, in getting to know one another as physical beings, in joining together in (what another colleague once called) “meat space;” for those of us for whom sharing the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is of paramount importance, it’s imperative! But if that isn’t happening on Sunday morning, let’s accept that it isn’t, move on, and find new and different ways to be church, new and different ways to mark and follow the admonition in Hebrews. It’s time for the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, blame-calling, and excuse-making to end, and for creative solutions to begin. It’s time for us to meet together . . . somewhere, sometime . . . and encourage one another!

(The social media cartoon is by David Hayward aka Nakedpastor.)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

This entry was posted in Anglican, Bible, Christianity, Church, Daily Office, Episcopal, Evangelism, Hebrews, Humor, Lectionary, Ministry, Religion, Spirituality, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Meeting Together – From the Daily Office – January 31, 2014

  1. Rob Scot says:

    Good reflection on a critical topic.
    I think this may actually be one of the great callings of the Church in our time: to remind society of the value of incarnate community, and to recall people to ‘meeting together’ in the flesh. That is not to say that we should not be looking for “new and different ways to mark and follow the admonition in Hebrews”, but I do believe that the Church is fundamentally an incarnate community. As you noted: “for those of us for whom sharing the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is of paramount importance, (face-to-face meeting is) imperative!” The decline or change among other organizations as studied by Putnam may be irreversible, because it represents a practical adaptation; for example, I suspect many businesses will never go back to a ‘brick and mortar’ model. But however the Church adapts to these societal shifts, I think there is no getting away from an understanding of the Church as a body that knows itself and its Lord through real physical encounter. And so, the Church may come to offer something vital that much of society seems now to be forgetting, at a time when society begins to recognize what is being lost elsewhere.
    Btw, kudos for working in The Who.

  2. eric says:

    Very good points, Rob! Thanks for the note.

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