For most of my ministry, people have been wringing their hands about the decline of mainline churches. From my first days of service as a priest, I heard people say that we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The image prompted a cartoon in six frames: As the ship disappears into icy waters, one could hear words from the top deck, one word per frame: We’ve… never… done…it… that…way.
I’ve wondered about the decline. Does it have to do with style of music or liturgy? Is it due to a lousy spirit of welcome? Is it about formality among the frozen chosen? Does it have to do with divisions on social or political issues? Or with indisputable hypocrisy, with shortcomings and abuses by church leaders, too many to number.
Last week, I read about a new study of the religiously unaffiliated conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute. It said the real reason for the decline is that people “no longer believe in religious teaching.” That squares with what we’ve learned in our own research. Religious beliefs are often held pretty loosely, if at all.
A while ago, a friend shared a column from the Wall Street Journal. The author interviewed a teenager at her youth group in Missouri. She told the author: “I love being Episcopalian. You don’t have to believe anything.” It was great this young person felt welcomed. But it made me think about what I might say to her if she was in my youth group. It made me think about what it means to believe, to trust. It got me thinking about where I give my heart. Are there things I would hope she would embrace? Here’s what I came up with:
- Creation is good. Very good, in fact, according to the book of Genesis.. All of creation is a gift, the work of a loving God who declares it all to be originally blessed. It prompts an attitude of gratitude. If we’re not waking up and walking around with a whole lot of wonder, we’re missing the point.
- God is about relationship. Maybe that’s why the doctrine of the Trinity matters. God is by nature a community of love (an idea stolen from Augustine), a community into which we’re invited.
- There is someone listening when we pray.
- Grace is true. Contrary to Gary Larson’s cartoon, God is not sitting at the keyboard waiting to press the “smite” button. Love is at the heart of creation. We are called to accept that we are accepted (an idea stolen from Paul Tillich).
- We need help: Evil is real (an idea stolen from the daily newspaper). We mess up. We need power greater than ourselves to embrace love freely given. We need to know and show forgiveness.
- Jesus is worth following. It’s not always easy to do, but he opens the way to God’s life.
- The Bible tells a story we need to know. Not as literal instruction manual, or bludgeon to prove our point, but as chronicle of God’s relationship with us. It sheds light on our path (An idea stolen from the psalms).
- The Eucharist sustains us, bread for the journey nourishing us on the spiritual journey.
- We are designed for service. We find life by giving it away. The greatest among us is the servant.
- Transformation happens.
That’s my list, at least so far. What’s yours? Spend time thinking today about beliefs and teaching that matter to you, that engage your heart. Give your heart to them.
But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.’
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