Saving The Churches... Did We? Can We? Will We?
I've written a number of columns on these pages about churches, as well as about my own faith experiences. My own religious journey was combined with the crisis of being a sickly child, frequently in and out of hospitals. As Dad was a church choral director, we attended a variety of churches. My denominational loyalties were therefore virtually non-existent, although my personal faith continued to be strong.
I found much to admire in each of those churches, but at the same time I learned that people were pretty much people no matter what church we attended. Like some people, some of my own church experiences were also not always as positive as I had hoped. I've often thought about my grandfather's quote--that some of those churches may have been more concerned with "what I give than how I live." So often it seemed to me there was such a vast chasm between faith-based ideals and religious realities.
In the past 50 years or so, mainstream Christianity seems to have taken it on the chin. Churches have closed in droves. Membership has declined for a variety of concrete reasons, ranging from debates about whether the "social gospel" or traditional liturgical worship should prevail to the issue of those disgusting abuses. While churches continued to teach "forgive and forget," as well as Jesus' admonition to "Go and sin no more," the sins of so many abusers went on and on. Nor did it help that church leadership sometimes had a tendency to be secretive and aloof, expecting their congregations to quietly sit in the pews like inanimate robots on autopilot: praying, paying, and obeying. To some, even the singing of those great old hymns began to sound much like the bleating of somnambulistic sheep.
While Jesus indeed spoke of cleansing from sin and going forward with one's life to serve others, a number of churches instead fostered a type of guilt-ridden co-dependency. In some churches, one could be forgiven by God either directly, or with the assistance of a minister or a priest, but could one EVER be "good enough" for Heaven? By treating their congregants as perpetually guilt-filled and potentially evil children, some churches appeared to encourage a mindset of continual inadequacy. At some point, people started to leave their churches. It wasn't always a case of outright rebellion either. More often, it probably was just a case of being fed up. Sometimes, new congregations and denominations split off and formed from the old ones, but it often wasn't long before the same obsessions about rules and guilt were reasserted in new churches. In various churches, there was also often a disconnect between the laity and those in power. Finally, many people, feeling powerless to change the status quo, had had enough.
An ex-seminarian once told me that his biggest theological problem was that if Jesus took away the sins of the world by His sacrifice on the cross, why did we need to continually ask His forgiveness? Shouldn't our prayers be filled with gratitude rather than guilt? Good questions.
Martin Luther King reportedly said that the most segregated hour in America was at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday mornings. Over time, each church had developed their own particular ways of doing things, and you either fit into their little mold or else, whether that mold was demographic, social, racial, or spiritual. One way or another, all too often you were the one who was wrong and your church was right.
That type of mindset may have worked in 1962, but not so well these days. Today, churches find they are under scrutiny big-time. Lawsuits have abounded regarding abuses, and people are demanding greater transparency and accountability from their church leadership. They are also demanding a greater voice in that leadership. The old "pray, pay, and obey" model is also being questioned. It's not so much due to a disdain for the fundamentals of the Christian faith as to the stunning realization that all Christians need to be much more proactive and involved with their faith. Christians these days are much less willing to sit on the sidelines. They are demanding and receiving greater ownership of their faith responsibilities. Guilt is no longer the primary concern for many people. Instead, there is a greater awareness that LOVE, the guiding principle of ALL churches, can never be reconciled with exclusionary practices. LOVE is about inclusion, although that ideal can be difficult to put into practice.
I've written columns on these pages about trying to save two Catholic churches in the Cleveland area: St. Barbara's on Dennison and St. James here in Lakewood. As it turns out, both of these churches have been re-opened. I have been told by different people that my columns may have played a part in helping to re-open those houses of worship. If so, that would be wonderful. I certainly hope so, but there is a bigger issue in play. Is there more that could have been done that might have prevented those closures in the first place? What contributions could our community as a whole make towards keeping a beautiful spiritual centerpiece like St. James from crisis in the future? More to the point: what can each of us do to keep it here? In the cases of both St. James' and St. Barbara's churches, their parish lay leadership teams are now faced with great responsibilities, and thankfully, an even greater empowerment towards getting those churches back on solid ground. But they can't do it alone. They'll need the help and prayers of their parishioners and their community to pull it off.
One thing's for sure. There can be no more business as usual. No more "pray, pay, and obey" only. To make renewal work, the doors of a church must be open to many new ideas, and to many new people too, as well as to those who once left their faith. Those doors must indeed be open wide for all, or they may well once again be closed. Old, tired ideas and practices of the past must remain in the past, because the present and future are here.
Prayers, money, gifts, moral support..all of these things are important to the life of a faith community. That is, after all, why they call it FAITH. St. James is not alone either. There are still a number of other Lakewood Christian faith communities hanging on by a prayer, so to speak. Whatever the difficulties of the past may have been, God may well leave it up to us as to whether these faith communities endure in the future. Whatever their perceived faults may have been, their presence has long been a steady light of LOVE in a swirling secular world of change. When the bells of St. James once again toll to commemorate "The Angelus," what indeed will be the role that each of us will be called to play in order to mark the spiritual pulse of this city?
A couple of quotes come to mind. The first would be that one so often heard at funerals from the Good Book, the one stating "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." I would certainly understand the thought there that a loving God can indeed extend and remove blessings, but there's a more modern quote that might equally apply: "Use it or lose it." Either our churches will be used in ways pleasing and acceptable to the Creator, or they might not be around for much longer.
Mom used to say that churches were our last best hope. I hope so.
Welcome back, St. James!