In the past, churches were the center of the community
Last Sunday at the churches I serve, I did something the congregations have come to expect (tolerate?) from me on occasion: I got on my soap box and ranted about something that has troubled me. I had titled my message “Spring is almost here,” but in reality it had nothing to do with what has seemed like an endless winter with very elusive signs of the spring that waits to be. I wanted to stress the churches in the United States seem to have lost their special place in our society, and we need to plant the seeds of faith once again if we are to produce a new crop of believers.
One only need to look at the sobering statistics of the United Methodist Church in America to realize that there has been a steady decline in membership and attendance. Thirty years ago there were 10,671,774 active Methodists; today the number has dwindled to 8,341,375 as reported in the annual statistical reporting of the 35,275 local churches. I called a good friend who is a Catholic priest and asked if he could provide me similar statistics. He reported that in 1965 there were 58,632 active priests, today there are only 39,600. In 1965 there were only 549 parishes without a priest, there are now 3,554, and from statistical reporting only 20 percent attend church regularly. This I find troubling.
Just a generation or two ago, the role of the church in the lives of Americans was so much different. The church oftentimes was the center of the community; a place to be on Sunday morning, of course, but also the social hub for the people. It was the place where families gathered together and life-long friendships were fostered. That has changed in many communities because our lives have changed so dramatically.
What I find troubling is the ease with which people decide to spend Sunday morning leisurely drinking coffee and reading the paper before heading out to the mall or the grocery store to do the weekly shopping. Our schools plan so many sporting games and tournaments on Sundays, and the draw of fun things like skiing, hunting, fishing, boating and amusement parks takes precedence over an hour spent in worship.
We can, as Christians, change that. We can commit ourselves once again to being a part of our church family. We can recognize God’s amazing presence in our own lives and freely tell others about it. We can get involved in the life of our churches through outreach programs to the community, Bible study, or find creative ways to make the faith journey more competitive with the draw of the mall, the internet and computer games.
I have gloriously watched our local church grow steadily for the past few years and have reveled in the increasing presence and attendance of young people in worship. I believe that is because the seeds of faith are there in our hearts, our beings, and we are making a conscious effort to plant those seeds in the hearts of others. A turnaround in the statistics I cited won’t happen overnight, but with love, compassion, justice and a good dose of old-fashioned evangelism, a change will come.
So, as I offered to my churches, Spring is almost here and it’s time for us to start planting.
Blessings on your own personal and church-based faith journeys. I am praying for you.
The Rev. Jerry Oliver is the pastor of the Mayfield UMC and Northampton UMC.