The Slow Death of Mainstream Church
And why I can still be found in the choir on Sunday mornings.
As always, the minister greets us with a cheerful demeanour. It doesn’t matter whether there are six, or sixty, or six hundred, it’s always the same start to the service. It’s become part of the sacred rhythms of our time together.
It’s been a long time since there were six hundred, or even two hundred in this sanctuary. We can still hit one hundred, though usually only on Christmas, Easter, or another special service.
As I scan the sixty or so people scattered through the lower pews from my perch in the choir loft, I can see that I may not be the youngest person in the room, but I’m definitely below the average age. This is concerning because I’m almost 40, and people my age should make up half of this group — at least according to demographics.
There are few people around my age, or younger, in the sanctuary. Most of them are seated near me in the choir loft. There’s a couple of teenagers, one college-age student, my daughter and a couple other younger kids, and really that’s about it. Certainly there aren’t enough of us to maintain this ministry as everyone ages.
“What will be left for my daughter in twenty years?” I wonder to myself.
I grew up in houses of worship…literally. My father was a minister with a mainstream protestant denomination in Canada. Many days of my youth were spent playing in church gyms, exploring nooks and crannies of century-old buildings, and trying to be “helpful” to my dad and the church secretary.
In my teens, my mother went back to school in order to make the jump from teaching to ministry as well. This meant two churches, two congregations, two places in which I was surrounded by people with certain expectations of the minister’s kid. Sometimes the expectations of others are worse than the expectations of your own family.
Through my teens, I experimented…a lot. Oh, there were no drugs, sex, or anything like that. Can you imagine the scandal in the church community if the minister’s kid got caught with some pot? This was the nineties, when the war on drugs was still raging.
No, I experimented with church. Different denominations, different worship styles, different beliefs, I tried a bunch of them. Always too worried about what other people thought to just let myself be who I wanted to be.
Throughout this time, I was a regular attendee at regional church meetings. We met once a year to discuss the work of the church on a larger scale, and about once a meeting I would stand up and speak on something or another. This experience gave me a healthy respect for not only debate, but the process of achieving consensus instead of majority.
I spent my summers working at summer camp, though my beliefs began to evolve and I ended up rejecting the small, petty beliefs of exclusion that they espoused. In their own terms, I love the believers and hate the beliefs.
I owe a lot to those formative years, they have shaped me in ways that I never would have chosen.
I famously fell asleep during a prayer at the end of an all-day planning session with the leadership team.
As I moved out of my teens and into my post-secondary years, I found myself drawn towards leadership in different organizations. I worked as a volunteer youth minister in my denomination, serving in a couple of different local and regional roles. I also served in leadership with a non-denominational group on my university campus.
Though in retrospect, my heart wasn’t totally in that one. I famously fell asleep during a prayer at the end of an all-day planning session with the leadership team. In my defence, I had worked an overnight shift the night before.
I have worshipped in arenas, in tiny chapels, around fires with a small group of friends, while walking solo through a labyrinth, and while riding wind-driven waves in a canoe. I have also worshipped in cathedrals, with hundred-plus voice choirs, from the pews, from the choir loft, and from the pulpit.
Church has never been about worship.
I don’t believe that worship is limited to certain buildings.
I don’t even believe that worship is limited to certain religions.
Church is not about worship.
Having spent the better part of forty years as an “insider” who sits at the periphery of church business has given me a unique perspective. I can count at least nine buildings that have been part of my journey so far. While family has always been a big part of church for me, it is always in the context of the people and not the building.
Unlike many others, I don’t have deep family roots that go back generations in one building or another. I’m not even sure if the building my parents got married in is still around, much less my grandparents. My great-grandparents got married across the ocean, so I have even less of a connection to whatever place hosted their marriages.
While I have fond memories of certain aspects of the different buildings in which I’ve found community, I’ve never really had a connection to a building in and of itself. Certainly I’ve been involved in meetings where others have talked about their long connections to the building.
Maybe they or their parents were part of the committee that built the addition in the 60’s. Maybe every generation of their family has been baptized, married, and eulogized in that same sanctuary for the last hundred years.
People have strange connections to the inanimate objects that form the touch points of their lives.
I should say that I have immense appreciation for these buildings, and the intricacies with which they were formed. I have seen beautiful stained glass in tiny country churches, and have walked the cavernous sanctuary of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
I’ve marvelled at the intricacy of carvings on pews and chairs while appreciating the detail that goes into assembling a roof system out of stone or wood. I’ve sung in buildings where you could reach out and touch the back wall, and in buildings where the acoustics are so perfect you could hear a pin drop.
If these spaces are truly sacred, they were sacred long before Europeans arrived in North America…
The buildings themselves are fantastic, if somewhat predictable. Most of them feature a main building that was constructed sometime between 1850 and 1920. Attached to that, more often than not, is a slightly more modern building that came about the same time the boomers did.
I have often felt the presence of the Sacred Holy in a building, but that has less to do with the building itself and more to do with acknowledging its presence everywhere.
In North America, we cannot call our buildings sacred without acknowledging the genocide and death we brought along with colonialism. If these spaces are truly sacred, they were sacred long before Europeans arrived in North America, and it has nothing to do with the buildings.
Church is not about buildings.
One of my favourite memories from my time as a “Preacher’s Kid” (PK) is the meals that we hosted at the church. We would have these fantastic BBQ meals where the catering company would lay out a huge pit made of steel panels in our parking lot. They would fill it up with a literal tonne of charcoal and then cook pork chops or chicken.
They would use these giant steel grills and sandwich the meat between two of them. They would flip the grills to cook both sides, and the grills would just make their way down the length of the pit: flip, flip flip. The catering company would move the charcoal around so that the meat cooked perfectly, with grill marks on the outside, and full of flavour in the inside.
If we were having chicken, they’d spray BBQ sauce on the meat from what I now realize were garden sprayers. At the time, I just thought it was special BBQ sauce that came in containers with a pump.
When I got bored of “helping” with the BBQ, I’d make my way inside and try to make myself helpful with other things…usually pies. Helping refill the pie table as people took their slices was a good way to make sure I could get my preferred slice.
And the laughter, oh the laughter…
But more than anything, more than the smell of the BBQ, the heat of food platters, or the taste of a homemade dutch apple pie with crumble on top, I remember the sounds. Not just the sounds of a busy kitchen filled with industrious people, but the sounds of community.
It was the same sounds that filled the church hall at every gathering. The same ones that filled the spaces between duties at summer camp. The same sounds that filled homes throughout my youth at different points in the year, but never so often as at Christmas time.
You know the sounds:
Friends sharing greetings as if they hadn’t seen each other in years instead of a couple hours ago at the coffee shop.
Kids running and screaming in delight as they played together.
Parents admonishing those same kids, regardless of whether they were related.
Conversations that have been rehashed for decades, mingling with conversations that are just being birthed.
And the laughter, oh the laughter that would bubble up from all corners of the room at different points throughout the night. Other than the moment of silence in which someone (usually my mother or father) blessed the food, there was laughter from somewhere in that space throughout the night.
That, more than anything has marked my journey and shaped my faith.
And that sound, that joyous sound of the Sacred in me greeting the Sacred in you is what brings me back to church over and over again.
Despite my own self-doubts, anxieties, and general weirdness as a kid and teenager, I found myself accepted into these communities. At first, it was because of who I was; the minister’s kid generally comes along with the minister.
As I got older, old enough to find (and make) my own communities, I found myself accepted into this fantastic community of people who just wanted me, the person.
They accepted me with all of those self-doubts, anxieties, and general weirdness. We didn’t see each other often, and I see them even less now as our lives have taken us to different parts of the world. Every time we see each other, we pick up where we left off. A little older, a little wiser, but the same community.
At the heart of that community was always the Sacred in each other.
Over the years we’ve lost some people, we’ve gained others, but there has always been community.
While the Sacred Holy can be found in many places, she is most often found in community. When the Sacred in me acknowledges and finds grace with the Sacred in you, then God is truly present.
This is what pulls me back to the church over and over again. The desire to find the Sacred in other people, and to experience the Sacred in community.
This is why I find myself looking at sixty people in a sanctuary built for three hundred. Where the balcony might get used once a year, and the average age is past retirement.
This is a beautiful community of people who are deeply beloved by each other, and by God.
The people in this community are no more and no less loved by God than any other person. There is nothing special in and of this community by itself, except that we deliberately come together and acknowledge the Sacred in each other.
From the moment my daughter and I walked into that community as complete strangers, they wanted nothing more from us than to be who we were created to be.
It doesn’t stop with the community though. What has truly made these communities sacred, has made them home for me is that they work each and every day to acknowledge the Sacred in each person they encounter.
Their love and acceptance of me has nothing to do with who I am. In fact our church is home to a microcosm of Canadian society. We have immigrants, visible minorities, people with disabilities and functional needs, indigenous people, and colonists.
Each and every one of those people is accepted and beloved because our community chooses to acknowledge that each of us contain a piece of the Sacred Holy within us. By acknowledging our Sacredness first, the rest of our differences don’t matter.
We choose to be excluded from some circles of Christianity because of our inclusion. If acknowledging the Sacred Holy in everyone means being excluded from some circles, then it is a small price to pay for the wonderful experience of finding the Sacred Holy in unexpected places.
The mainstream church is dying. The institution is not what used to be, and it never will be again.
That is not a bad thing.
Churches closing, being converted to restaurants, apartments, performance spaces, or even data centres do not spell the beginning of the end.
It’s not even the end of the beginning.
It is a transformation. One that is grounded in the Sacred Holy in each and every person.
Because the Church is not the building.
The Church is not the worship.
The Church is, and always has been, about the Sacred Holy in each other.
That’s why I’m in the choir loft.
That’s why we’re all here, even though there’s fewer every year.
We are not dying, we are being transformed.