The Great Church Disconnect 1

Some numbers. 67% of Americans think religion is losing influence. In 1987, there were 5.3 million people divided among 11,000 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). At the end of 2009, there were 4.5 million in 10,348 churches. Since 2003, throughout the ELCA’s congregations, average weekly attendance has fallen from 144 to 131 people.

Why?

Here’s a New York-area religion reporter’s thoughts:

“I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.

The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading theTimes. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.

When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say ‘We missed you’?”

The ELCA church my family attends is a snapshot of the “graying of America”. I would guess the average age of people in our congregation is close to 60. There are few young families and fewer people than when we first started attending seven or so years ago.

Our church, our synod, and the ELCA are failing to connect with people in compelling ways, especially culturally diverse young and middle-aged people. Our synod’s percentage of “members of color” has exploded from 2.3% to 3.9% since 2003. Too few people are asking why the church is failing to connect with people of color in particular.

I think the religion reporter is discounting “worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music” far too quickly. On the surface they may not seem fundamental, but words—spoken in sermons and sung in worship—are symbolic of a worldview that does or doesn’t challenge and inspire people in meaningful, compelling ways. And the Sunday service is the center of the church week and the sermon is the center of the service.

Increasingly, ELCA preaching strikes me as problematic and may in part explain the church’s decline. What’s most fascinating about the preaching problem is it’s larger than any one person or ministry team, it’s a pervasive culture whose norms I suspect are learned first and most significantly in seminary. It doesn’t matter which of the 10,338 ELCA churches you attend next Sunday, you’re likely to hear a very similar sermon that I would characterize as unceasingly literary, vague, and forgettable. To be continued.

One thought on “The Great Church Disconnect 1

  1. I think being disconnected to people’s lives can be more pervasive than just the sermon. It can be reflected as you said in the songs chosen, Sunday school classes offered, level of relationship the leadership has with their parishioners, , etc.

    I’ve heard a lot of “literary, rather abstract” sermons, mostly in mainline denominational churches. I prefer sermons that are more accessible and easier to apply to my life. However, I think a church shouldn’t be judged too harshly by a sermons that don’t really connect. True, it would be better if they did, but I am able to excuse it if the rest of the church is doing a better job of connecting to people’s lives. Are people met in times of need by pastors and fellow congregants? Are there small groups that give opportunity for sharing lives and getting support? Can current topics be explored in the context of Christianity? Are the church members warm and friendly? Is the Christianity that is taught at the church solid theologically? Are the pastors warm and do they have integrity? Are there opportunities to express one’s opinions and become involved in ways that are meaningful to oneself?

    If a church doesn’t have those aspects, but the pastor is an awesome preacher, I still wouldn’t want to be a part of that church. I’m not disagreeing that a great preacher is invaluable to inspire and encourage, but I just think it’s only one piece of the package that defines a church as being connected to people’s lives or not.

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