Most everything about my youth suggested that church would be a large part of whatever life might bring. As was common in rural Minnesota back then, churches were the spiritual and social centers of those they served. We spent a lot of time at ours.
Midweek was Bible study; Saturday was catechism; Sunday was more study, the regular service and Methodist Youth Fellowship. There were regular “Circle” meetings and special events like ice-cream socials — and, of course, Christmas and Easter.
I shoveled the church sidewalk in winter, mowed its lawn in summer and cleared tables at dinners. Our sparse home closets kept “for good” clothes, strictly reserved for church events.
There was supper-table chitchat about the weather, what the neighbors were up to, how the farm animals were doing and goings-on at church — including, at times, open scorn about those Catholic “fish-eaters.” Many adults, Catholic and Protestant, considered interfaith dating verboten. Catholics seemed most devout. Perhaps it was mysticism of the priest, who, our friends from St. Mary’s boasted, was God’s chosen emissary. The “Father” ruled the town’s grandest building, wore distinctive garb, could speak Latin and was the Bible’s final authority.
Regardless of affiliation, church was etched into our character.
Boy, things have changed.
The Star Tribune’s periodic “Test of Faith” series by Jean Hopfensperger reports that mainline churches are closing as attendance and membership plummet. Just 1 in 5 Minnesotans claim a church affiliation, a record low.
Among the many reasons are tuned-out millennials not replacing seniors and the distractions of a mobile society with jammed calendars. Who’d have thought that gathering for kids’ soccer would supplant church as a social center?
Sure, folks are busy. But there’s something more basic: The church, broadly, has been hijacked by TV scammers, narrow-interest evangelicals and unending sex scandal. Too, the church has largely stuck with Sunday school scripture by anecdote and has failed to remain relevant to society’s altered priorities.
Frankly, the institutional church has itself to blame. In a period of social divide and gathering doubt, it’s a bit puzzling why so many mainline churches seem mired in orthodoxy and creedal dogma that take us on Sunday morning jaunts through antiquity before sending us out and into today.
Back then, American history books and certainly the church were silent on things like the ruthless ethnic cleansing of indigenous tribes under the “divine” shroud of Manifest Destiny. Today’s younger set is aware of that, as well as the church’s assent to slavery and its role in the murderous Ku Klux Klan in the Jim Crow South (the so-called “Bible Belt”).
That’s the stuff that stokes cynicism, along with rationalization that one need not attend church to be spiritual. Whatever “being spiritual” means individually, it adds up to pew vacancies.
Of course, early Christians saw God in different ways and even called God — and gods — by other names. Improved understanding of the physical world through science exploded some myths advanced by biblical adherents, such as whether the sun or the Earth is the universe center, and the gaping gulf of Earth’s estimated age (6,000 vs. 4.5 billion years). More cynicism.
So, is it even important that churches are closing and their flocks dissipating? And what may be done to turn things around?
While I’m not so “churchy,” I share concern about the church’s decline. Churches are beautiful places where one may reflect, contemplate and sing the old favorites. Churches are where misdeeds may be reconciled, a refuge from demons that plague, and sanctuaries for those desperately needing protection from foul forces much bigger than they.
Churches are needed, as are their ministers and priests, to help salve human hurt and provide moral guideposts for living, something especially needed when ideological divide is straining America’s democratic experiment.
Which brings me back to my Methodist church as seen by a teen trying to make sense out of complex realities of growing up.
Doubt crept in early. How could it be that the pastor’s son was the school’s meanest bully, and why did the new minister angrily denounce dancing as sinful — just days before the popular school sock hop?
When I graduated from Sunday school to sit with elders for regular service, I came to realize in time that save for the hymns and ritual and bigger words, the teachings upstairs were often the same fluffy fables taught to tots downstairs.
Ministers back then seemed oblivious to the Korean War or the Red Scare as they rambled by rote about a peace-loving Jesus who proclaimed faith mightier than the sword. Message received, but I still thought that if the commies come, I’d just as soon have something sharp.
More and more I came to discover that less and less being preached from the pulpit related to life as lived. As we heard stories of walking on water and feeding multitudes with a few fish, I wondered what God thought about sagging hog prices or the tractor’s busted axle we couldn’t afford to fix.
At college, doubt grew when a priest at the student Catholic center began making a scriptural case that the Vietnam War was immoral. What threw me was that he was condemned by ministers in town for bringing religion into one of the time’s most corrupting issues.
Then there were TV’s money-grubbers, like Jim Bakker (and David Cerullo, his successor when Bakker went to prison). And the famous Rev. Billy Graham, who inspired throngs of followers — but who was revealed as a homophobe, anti-Semite, anti-feminist, and Watergate denier until tapes showed his good friend Richard Nixon to be a foul-mouthed conspirator. This from a man of God?
Then Joel Osteen, along with a cluster of others like Kenneth Copeland, Mike Murdoch and our own Mac Hammond, took up the “the prosperity gospel.” Dressed in designers, they’d sashay around (still do) lavish megachurches and push “God’s promise” of making us all rich — while extracting bucks from gullible, mostly low-income hordes to finance their mansions, yachts and private jets.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t hesitate a holy minute to toss these frauds out of their tax-exempt temples as he properly did the money-changers.
Then newspapers turned bright lights on what became a worldwide scourge of sexual predation by Catholic priests, revealing repulsive brutes who abused tens of thousands, mostly kids. The smothering stench of hypocrisy — including the church hierarchy’s continuing coverup — ignited supercharged anger and more cynicism.
Too many really bad odors wafted from the Christian church, turning people off and away.
So, in a discussion with a devoutly religious friend, I said Jesus should re-energize his flock to step up their work for the poor and dispossessed, and against evil. Everything I knew was that Jesus was a wandering Jew who challenged the ruling Romans and colluding Jewish leadership, and likely a guerrilla warrior from the Galilean land of Zealots who raided and killed the hated Romans.
I flippantly added that conservative evangelists may be surprised to know Jesus was a radical social activist and community organizer.
Taking exception, my friend challenged me to read the Bible so that I may know Jesus. I did. Over several years I read the Bible, heard lectures on its meaning, read theological historians and spent hours testing my thoughts with another friend, a minister.
From that, it seemed clear that New Testament authors — Jews, who wrote many decades after Jesus died — devised the spiritual Jesus to fulfill Old Testament (Jewish) prophecy.
The biblical Jesus railed against the wealthy because Romans and their devotees were very rich, and he advocated for the impoverished because his fellow Jews were abjectly poor.
The biblical Jesus challenged the Jewish hierarchy because the Pharisees and Sadducees were in cahoots with the reviled Romans.
Bible stories were never meant as literal history. They were parables used by biblical authors in the Jewish oral tradition to help illiterate followers understand the presence of a divine savior as the “new Moses.”
Mainline churches too often take the Bible wildly out of context, spread misinformation (no, Jesus did not oppose gay marriage, and it was Romans, not Jews, who crucified Jesus as a Galilean insurrectionist), and insist the Bible was divinely inspired. As more people peeked behind the curtain as I did, they see a church tied to ancient myth while missing the larger messages for today.
Now, I appreciate that religion summons varied thoughts on spiritual truth and that biblical anecdote can support a range of views, including those expressed here.
But those who believe that God coached biblical authors should read the “troubling texts” (parts of Leviticus and Deuteronomy promote felonies), and consider that writings attributed to Paul promote submissive roles for women and the legitimacy of slavery.
What caring God would endorse such nonsense? And what God would claim that all are made in his image, but insist that only Christians are worthy of a glorious afterlife? More cynicism.
The Bible is not an easy read, but all the words in its 66 books can be distilled to the essential gospel found in the beatitudes: Comfort the poor, the meek, the persecuted, the hungry, and praise peacemakers and the merciful; and in Jesus’ command to fully love God’s goodness, and do to others as you’d have them do to you (the “golden rule” is basic to all world religions).
Of course, Christianity has been enormously successful in attracting legions of followers, but the widespread sin and suffering alongside the conspicuous megawealth of the very few is evidence that after 2,000 years the church’s mission hasn’t advanced so much.
Regardless, in a time of church closings there are those who see opportunity to repopulate the pews by relating scripture to pressing social issues, and in the process heed to the notion that every government budget is a moral document in need of moral scrutiny.
Churches need not become overtly political, but they must become relevant to today’s realities, and in the process regain diminished moral authority.
And that “new church” is present at metro parishes like Mayflower United Church of Christ, St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, First Universalist and St. Mary’s Episcopal (many more scattered about Minnesota). Those churches (and synagogues like Shir Tikvah in Brooklyn Park) have stable and growing memberships that actively relate scripture to social issues.
Some churches have leveraged their social purpose by combining forces through faith-based advocacy groups like Isaiah, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, and the Minnesota Council of Churches.
Objectives of these groups follow the messages of the social-activist life of the biblical Jesus, and further described by Mayflower UCC minister the Rev. Dwight Wagenius, paraphrasing from another: More and more are involved in “… the silent working of good.”
Ron Way lives in Edina.