Our churches are empty, and if M. Scott Peck is right and all things of significance are over-determined then there’s more than one reason for that. Mom and Dad no longer shine your patent leather shoes and take you to Sunday school while they head upstairs to listen to Rev. Bailey. It’s no longer expected. It’s no longer part of our cultural mystique. We see behind the curtain now. As sophisticated, wizened, postmodern folk, we’ve lost faith in our institutions; we no longer heed their call or feel their power.
Sure. Maybe there are a few hip mega-churches popping up against the skyline now and again, reminders that miracles happen and the rest of us must be doing something wrong; but for the most part mainstream, mainline, Catholic and Protestant alike, good old Christian churches are in decline. Perhaps wicked behavior and bad decisions caught up with us. Maybe we fell out of vogue or favor. Maybe we didn’t ask the right questions or we asked too many. Maybe we became judgmental or worse still, insignificant; or perhaps like a stream of empires, the Church ran its course and began descent into decay. There are lots of reasons folks may prefer brunch to worship, but thinking about it just makes me hungry and depressed.
Here is something I do know. I know that Jesus met people where they are and that he loved them and healed them. He fed them when they were hungry, and he didn’t ask them to recite a litany of beliefs or join any organizations to belong to the body of Christ. It was all about grace with that guy, and I fear we’ve lost some of that. We’re afraid. And it’s difficult to be creative when you’re so worried.
I served a church that had nine folks at worship on Sunday morning and eighty at the soup kitchen on Monday afternoon. It was pretty clear that if you wanted a sustained conversation, you’d do well to eat lunch. Over the next decade, although the growth was slow and full of struggle, it also emerged almost exclusively from the work we did in the community. We followed the example of Jesus. We fed hungry folks. We prayed and surrendered and tried our best to love, and we increased our image, our value and our significance in the community. We met our neighbors. We formed relationships even with the least among us. We became a community-based organization that worships, and if human beings are mind, body and spirit then we are serving a purpose, filling a need, serving God and also the kids in the neighborhood. We still need to heal the lepers and set the captives free, and we can’t do that if we don’t know any of their names. Handing a cold soul a warm blanket and a bowl of chili creates an opportunity for grace and relationship, and God is relational. That’s how this whole religion thing got started.