This post is also the cover article in this week's newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about St. John's, click here.
Some people think that mainline church attendance is declining because most denominations have failed to keep up with changes in culture. They suppose that old-fashioned expressions of Christianity like Sunday-morning worship, traditional hymns, and sermons preached from a pulpit are not getting through to those who prefer their spirituality in on-demand sound bites that can be easily digested by smart-phone-holding, pajama-wearing individuals who prefer to encounter the sacred from the comfort of their living room. And, if the medium is not the reason why churches have failed to attract a contemporary audience, then the message must be. Who wants to hear some hypocrite talk about sin and redemption when the secret to a life well lived can be found in the latest post on Facebook or Pinterest? To them I say, “Fiddlesticks!”
What time of year does church attendance swell to its peak? More than at any other time, we pack the pews during Lent—that season when we say and do some dreadfully old-fashioned things. This is the season when we allow religious traditions to interfere with our regularly scheduled programming by giving up chocolate or alcohol or swearing. Lent is when we start each Sunday by reciting the Ten Commandments as we kneel in penitence. Throughout these forty days, we hear over and over again that we are sinners in need of redemption. In perhaps the least attractive way imaginable, we smear ashes on our foreheads as a reminder that we are mortal—that the clock is ticking, that all of us will die, that eventually our bodies will become dust. And what is the response? More people come to church.
Why is that? Why is a world that seeks solace in every death-defying measure imaginable attracted to an institution that proclaims universal mortality in unabashed terms? Why does a culture saturated with age-defying makeup, gray-hiding tints, wrinkle-smoothing Botox, and hardly noticeable surgical scars rush to hear again the news that one day this life will end? I believe that people come back to church during Lent for the same reason that the church still has a pulse, and I believe that the thing that attracts them at this time of year is also the key to the church’s future: something worth believing in.
Yes, the institutional church is facing some considerable challenges, and I give thanks to God for them. For too long, the world received its religion by fiat or by presumption. Although a lively faith has always been manifest within the particularly fervent, even the spiritually anemic went to church because, until recently, everyone did. What else was there to do on Sunday mornings? How else was one to climb the social ladder? A society governed by the church gave us no other options. Nowadays, however, those assumptions have faded, and the church is forced to grapple with reality. Now preachers must compete with soccer tournaments and midmorning jogs through the park and champagne brunches, and I, for one, welcome the challenge. Why? Because I believe that the church, as the authentic and indispensable custodian of the good news of Jesus Christ, has something that no other institution possesses, and I believe that these challenges will help us refocus our message on what matters: hope in the face of reality.
We are at our best during Lent not because people enjoy feeling miserable but because, during this season of penitence, we speak the truth. In a world of Photoshopped images and manufactured realities that are, at their core, designed to escape the unavoidable, the church still speaks the truth. We are all going to die. We are not masters of our own fate. We cannot create perfection. But we know the only answer to the otherwise unanswerable dilemma of human existence. In the person of Jesus Christ, we have experienced life beyond death, hope beyond despair, and perfection beyond failure. The world offers transient comfort through the empty promise of escape, but the church promises unshakable hope even in the face of death. No one else takes reality that seriously. No one else offers a hope like that.
Of course, Lent is not the only time of year when the church has the opportunity to preach the truth, and I suspect that the churches that are growing despite the overall trend are those that offer a message worth believing in all the time. May that be true of our church. May that be true of the entire church. May our experience this Lent remind us that God alone has the power to save us and that Jesus Christ is our hope even in the face of death.