Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
You might have noticed more and more people are NOT doing church anymore.
"In the early 1990s, more than half of Americans identified as White Protestants. By 2019, according to PRRI, that number had dropped to 29.9 percent while overall, 44 percent of Americans identify as White Christians. Major, mostly White denominations — United Methodists, Southern Baptist, Presbyterians and Lutherans — have lost millions of members. And those who remain are aging." 1
Add to that, a large number of pastors quit serving churches within their first five years of ministry and never return. Why? Well, here are just a few reasons. 2 In a recent Zoom call with six others pastors from a group we were in together 12 years ago, I realized I'm the only one still serving a congregation.
Add to that the heightened personal preference for church to match MY politics, as opposed to church bending my politics to resemble God's preferred way of being a community. Add to that broken routines and relationships from a year under pandemic lockdown.
I feel like a bit of an oddball sometimes. I started going to church in the late 1980s. My attendance became more frequent through the 1990s. I entered pastoral ministry in the 2000s. I'm still in it, serving a congregation after 16 years, including a pandemic.
Some of the reasons people give for NOT doing church are fair criticisms. Church is boring. Church is irrelevant, meaning doesn't apply to my personal daily life. Church isn't changing things for the better, and often only makes things worse. Church is hypocritical. Church is judgmental. Yes, all of that can be true.
So, why do church at all?
Can you imagine wanting a deep intimate loving relationship, like a marriage, but not wanting to have to regularly, faithfully show up for the other person in that relationship? Is there a way to get all the benefits of being married without having to give back anything into the marriage?
Can you imagine really wanting to be a member of a sports team and to have all the benefits of camaraderie and shared struggle, but not being willing to show up to practices or games? Is there a way to have all the friendships and accolades of sports success without having to show up, sacrifice, follow the coach, and work hard day after day?
Can you imagine wanting to have a tight, loving family, where everyone gets along, enjoys one another, and shares meals and chores without complaining or being asked, but not being willing to cook, clean, listen, or share in that family? Is there a way to have all the connections and relationships of family without having to invest personal time or energy into the family?
Church isn't about giving us what we want, but it is very much about giving us a path to get what we truly need.
Church is meant to be the place where honesty and vulnerability are rewarded and encouraged, and our relationships go deeper than surface-level small talk, all the way down to real worries and fears, dreams and hopes. Church is meant to be the place where our gifts are discovered and practiced, and put alongside others with different gifts, so together we can make a bigger difference in the world than we could have made alone or apart. Church is meant to be the place where laughter and tears are normal, where there is always enough for everyone, where the newest person is celebrated, where preparing, enjoying, and cleaning up after meals are all part of the fabric that knits us together so we show up for one another one the best and worst days ahead.
Church will fail at all of this sometimes. That's no reason or excuse to give up on church. Hold the vision, and keep leaning toward the church that is a marriage, a team, a family.
Some people might come to church wanting all the benefits but not willing to give back or participate. Hold the vision, and keep embodying the real benefits of deep vulnerable relationships, shared effort toward a common goal, and authentic connections despite our differences.
In that kind of church, those who dare show up to church will forget what they thought they wanted and discover they are getting what they always needed.