Going to Church


As a child, I once overheard a remarkable conversation between an elderly couple. The husband had stopped attending church months before the exchange occurred, and his wife was still pestering him about it. She was pleading, as she had each week, for him to accompany her to church. After he declined to do so for the umpteenth time, she exclaimed in exasperation: "For goodness sake, the neighbors will soon be talking about us as they did poor Mr. and Mrs. Brown. The only time those two went out together was when their gas stove exploded!"

The old geezer who kept saying "no" to church attendance was rare in the 1950s, especially in my neck of the woods. Most upstanding folks went to church on a regular basis. My own family attended at least three hours on Sunday and another hour on Wednesday evening. There were other church events during the week too. It is not exaggerating to add that the church was the center of our lives and, for that matter, of American culture.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration fervently, though superficially, advocated in favor of a religious America. During his tenure in office, the words "under God" were added to the national pledge of allegiance, and the phrase "in God we trust" was adopted as the national motto.

Then along came the turbulent 1960s. Some of those among us began sensing that we might be captives to a vicious downward spiral. It became clear to discerning intellectuals, like Robert Bork and Allan Bloom, that we were indeed in a cultural free fall.

Following the notorious assassination in 1963 of America's King Arthur, Lyndon B. Johnson, who hurled counterfeit silver dollars across the Pedernales, ascended to the helm of state. During his administration, Congress enacted a large legislative program, collectively styled the "Great Society." Much of the package consisted of entitlement initiatives, which continue today to form the bedrock of America's nanny state. These give-aways threaten, now like never before, to bankrupt our nation.

Also included in the package was the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which the historian Theodore White described as "probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society." Thanks to this particular legislation, with its gaping loopholes, the country soon became the most religiously diverse on the face of the earth. Its cultural fabric would be in tatters by the beginning of the twenty-first century.

As if these "accomplishments" were not enough to embellish his bitter legacy, President Johnson continued to wage an extremely cautious, but unpopular, war in Southeast Asia. The war deeply wounded, perhaps irreparably scarred, the American spirit. The anxiety of doubt and meaninglessness was ever-present throughout the country, forming a black cloud virtually engulfing it.

Religious leaders, especially those of a mainline Protestant persuasion, were at a loss how to respond to these developments. Some sought to cover their eyes, to detach themselves from the harsh realities mushrooming around them. They attempted business as usual in their churches, attending perfunctorily to the concerns of stewardship and evangelism, while re-cycling some very old sermons. Theirs was an inertial effort, which like all such efforts lived on borrowed time.

Other clerics were casualties in another way of the prevailing angst. They could not pretend that they didn't see, and could not trudge forward as usual. Their professional calling seemed to them almost like an anachronism. Hence, many of them embraced the times and began marching in anti-war and anti-discrimination demonstrations, hoping to justify their existence before the world and to themselves, re-establishing as it were their raison d'etre.

Neither group of clergy realized, or could bring themselves to acknowledge, that they were experiencing the final spasms of a bloodless revolution, which had begun long before most of them were even born -- during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. That was when John Dewey and his cohorts began their intellectual ascent. They espoused the philosophy of instrumentalism, or trial and error, as the essence of education and as the method of social problem-solving. These intellectuals led the charge against the "retrograde" expression of religion in public schools. They cavalierly dismissed any notion of eternal verities. The Judeo-Christian God was, for them, passé.

Mainline Protestantism, without realizing it, had gradually been losing its teeth. Only as the mid-1960s rolled around did the recognition of a sign in the distance that proclaimed spiritual "BANKRUPTCY" begin to come into view. Clergy around this time fell prey to an unrelenting ennui, which they had never before known. Depression abounded in their ranks.

"So where," you may ask, "is mainline Protestantism today?" Its leaders continue licking their wounds, and for good reason. Depending upon whose statistics one believes, it is fair to say that, from 1960 to 2005, mainline Protestant churches in the United States lost approximately 10 million members. 10 million! For the United Methodist Church, that meant a loss of about one thousand members a week. For the Presbyterians, it meant a loss of over one and a half million members total.  The trend, sad to say, continues.

In the face of these staggering numbers, mainline Protestant leaders are in a quandary. The primary question they are asking themselves is how they and their churches can stay afloat. Everything's about increasing church membership. There must, after all, be a way to save the ship, or is there?

Out of a concern to proliferate numerically, mainline Protestants have striven to be au courant. They have formed praise teams, which are essentially four- to six-piece pop bands that perform Christian ditties on Sunday morning. Most of these groups lend themselves to the embarrassing impression that they are rank amateurs indulging a suppressed desire to perform. Examine any one of these groups closely and you may see a church stalwart playing his bass guitar, a leader of the church's youth group pounding the keyboard, and a female elder dressed in spiked-heeled shoes, sporting leotards, and singing to the beat of a tambourine she shakes along with her hips. I have in fact witnessed such spectacles!

Praise teams are not the end of this vainglorious search for survival. Some churches sponsor multicultural celebrations (which turn out to be as segregated as lunch counters during the 1940s), creative dance and drama activities, and -- God help us! -- raffles. Others affirm "gay rights" and offer ordination to practicing homosexuals. Still others provide abortion counseling to expectant mothers. The mainline churches go to virtually any extreme to attract new members.

Any extreme, that is, which is approved by popular culture. But don't count on hearing too many well-researched and thoughtful sermons or engaging in a rigorous church education course. These don't meet the criteria for meaningful entertainment, at least in a milieu where the blind lead the blind. 

Most of the sermons one hears are painfully trite. They have a Hallmark quality about them. The preacher routinely ignores his scriptural text and, if he refers to it at all, makes a point that isn't even there. Yet these "homilies" don't, in truth or fact, really need a text. They are basically warmed-over civic club bromides.

If and when a congregant takes the time to offer an amicable critique of this bland, anemia-inducing fare, he will more than likely be ignored. How dare anyone insult the minister's intellect, or lack thereof. 

So where does one go if he desires only rich Christian hymnody on the order of "Fairest Lord Jesus" or "O God, Our Help in Ages Past"? In what venue does he hear thoughtful, challenging, and inspirational sermons based upon painstaking exegesis?  Where is there a church which actually spends more on mission than on building-maintenance? If one is searching in mainline Protestant churches for all three in one, he had best set his cork for shallow.

Thinking again about the conversation I overheard as a child, could it be that the old man saw something about the state of the church to which those around him were oblivious? Could it be that he simply decided to "vote with his feet" and not to attend church at all? Didn't Jesus, after all, say something about "leaving the dead to bury the dead"? It's grist for thought anyway.

Walking away from a necrotic church is a necessary task for a Christian at times. It not only safeguards his sanity but also may enable him to remain a Christian. The more vital task is for him to find a Christian community wherein to praise God. That is never optional. The effort must always be made. Within mainline Protestant culture, it may be a futile one.

July 22, 2011