I attended a workshop this week called Christianity after Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. For someone who makes her living from the church, the title was a tad disconcerting. Is church as we know it really ending?
Consider this statistic. In 1955, when asked if they believed in God, 99% of people surveyed said yes. Today that number is 64%. The number drops to 44% when you ask people under the age of 30. Yes. More than half of young people don’t believe in God.
What about church attendance? If you ask individuals, the number is 40% in a given week. If you ask the religious communities sponsoring the services those individuals allegedly attended, the figure is closer to 21%. Which means, basically, that we don’t go to church and we lie about it.
Another statistic. Only 25% of people today have confidence in religious institutions. I’ve had a general sense of the erosion of the importance of church in recent years, but Dr. Bass gave us some good reasons as to why that is so. She said that the 1990s were a boom time for religion. The largest book market during that decade was the religious book market. Mega churches popped up everywhere. Religion thrived.
Then, 9/11 happened. From that tragic event, people learned to associate religion with violence. On the heels of 9/11—just a few months later in 2002—the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church became public. Now people began associating religion with abuse. In 2003, the Episcopal Church elevated openly gay priest Gene Robinson to the position of bishop. The fallout from that event—that is, religious groups fighting within their own ranks–convinced people that religion was only about incivility and exclusion. Add to that the rampant politicization of religion in the last 30 years, and you begin to understand why religion is suffering a crisis of relevance.
I’ve had the opportunity recently to talk to some 20-somethings about church. These folks are sharp, delightful, very good people. But here’s the thing. Knowing my role in the church, knowing that the church I pastor isn’t the norm, still, these people whom I deeply respect dismiss church out of hand. They look at me dumbfounded, like, How could I be part of something so antiquated and out of sync with “real life?”
That has been disconcerting. Don’t get me wrong. I have definitely seen the bad side of church. But despite having seen the underside of church, I also know what happens here at Pilgrimage. I know we talk about God’s love and try as best we can to live it. I know we try to live like Christ’s disciples, no matter what our families look like, no matter what our life circumstances are. I know what it means to be part of a faith community that is safe and trustworthy. Church and Christian faith are integral to the life I lead. And it’s a good life.
But someone who is 20 years old, that is, someone who was born in 1991—what do they know of the church? They associate it with violence, abuse, incivility, exclusion, and political agendas. Young people today—a lot of people today—no longer associate organized religion with goodness and hope and compassion and love. Religious institutions—like all other institutions—are suspect. For most folks today, religious institutions are to be feared or dismissed, not respected…and certainly not sought out.
So, what are we to do? Should we give up? Is the situation hopeless? Or is there a way for faith communities to reclaim some authority in today’s anti-religion climate? Maybe we can learn something about all this from today’s Gospel Lesson.
Before today’s text, Jesus has been out collecting disciples. “Follow me, Simon and Andrew!” “Follow me, James and John!” The first real test of what kind of teacher/Messiah is going to be comes the first Sabbath they’re together. Will they or won’t they go to synagogue? Is Jesus a traditional Jewish teacher? Or is he doing something completely outside the tradition? The answer is….yes.
When Jesus and his disciples enter the synagogue that Sabbath morning, they are doing what Jews had been doing for generations. They gather with other worshipers, pray, sing, study the Scriptures. By making one of his first official acts attending synagogue, Jesus was affirming the legitimacy of the religious institution of his day.
It’s when he opens his mouth that the new thing happens. The people are “astounded at his teaching.” They say he “teaches as one having authority and not as the scribes.” Which is kind of interesting…because the scribes were the religious authorities. They knew and taught the scriptures. In our context, we might say they’d been to seminary and had been ordained. The scribes had all the credentials in the world to teach. But Jesus is the one who—in the people’s minds—taught “with authority.” So, if Jesus didn’t have “scribal” authority, what kind of authority did he have?
Maybe it was something like the authority music therapist, Zoe Baxter, has. In the novel, Sing You Home, Zoe is enlisted to work with a suicidal teenager named Lucy. They meet in the Special Education classroom each week, because that’s the only room available for their sessions. After several weeks of work, Lucy remains intransigent.
“I hate coming here,” Lucy says during a particularly difficult session. Her words cut through Zoe, who says, ‘I’m really sorry to hear—“ “The special ed room? Seriously? I’m already the school’s biggest freak, and now everyone thinks I’m retarded, too.”
“Mentally challenged,” Zoe corrects automatically. Lucy gives her the look of death.
“I think you need to play some percussion,” Zoe says.
“And I think you need to go (bleep)…”
“That’s enough,” Zoe says and she grabs Lucy by the wrist and hauls her down to the kitchen in the school’s cafeteria, where Zoe announces to the cafeteria lady: “I’m going to need you to clear this area.” “Oh, you are,” she says. “Who died and left you queen?” The two go at it until the cafeteria lady says, “I’m going to get the principal,” and leaves.
Zoe starts grabbing pots and pans and turns them over on the work surfaces. She gathers ladles, spoons, and spatulas. “You’re going to get reamed,” Lucy says. Zoe doesn’t care. She sets up two drumming stations—one makeshift high hat (an overturned skillet), a snare (an overturned pot), and leaves the metal server door at [their] feet to be the bass drum. “We’re going to play the drums,” she announces. And they do.
It’s just what Lucy needs…not only the drumming…but the fact that Zoe went outside the bounds of institutional expectations to give Lucy what she needed. And Zoe bore the consequences for breeching those boundaries. When the principal comes to see what’s going on, Zoe takes the blame. (Sing you home, 233-5)
The boundaries of the school—classroom boundaries, teacher-student boundaries, sanitation boundaries for the kitchen—all those things were important. But when it came to reaching Lucy in the place of her deepest need, it became necessary to cross those boundaries, to rewrite the rules. For the sake of Lucy’s spirit—one might even say her soul—Zoe acted outside the usual authorities and became a true authority for Lucy.
That’s exactly what Jesus does at the synagogue. As soon as the people acknowledge Jesus’ authority, a man with a demon/mental illness comes in. Jesus heals him. Amazed, the people again remark on the authority of Jesus’ teaching. “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority!” I’m sure there were very good teachers among the scribes in the synagogue. I’m sure they taught the scriptures with integrity. But maybe they were only conveying what they’d been taught, repeating by rote what they’d heard from others.
Jesus, though, seems to be saying the words as if he wrote them himself, as if he “authored” them. When Jesus talked about healing, he believed it would happen. And it did.
Another thing to note here is that, in the context of Jewish thought and practice, healing was considered work…which meant it wasn’t supposed to happen on the Sabbath. Jesus claimed his authority when relieving a man’s suffering became more important than religious rules. Don’t get me wrong. Religious rules are important…but sometimes the rules need to be challenged or changed or bent. Sometimes you have to do the unexpected and go outside the usual boundaries to meet people where they are, in the midst of their deepest need.
Like Zoe did with Lucy. Later, Lucy reflects on the kitchen drumming session. “I’ve never had anyone do that for me before. Zoe knew she was going to get in trouble. But she didn’t care. Instead of making me do what I’m supposed to do, or be what everyone wants me to be, she did something totally crazy. It was brave, is what it was.” (276)
So, what does all of this have to do with the end of church? In all of the depressing things I learned from that workshop this week, there also was some hope. While people’s trust in religious institutions is waning, their desire for spiritual fulfilment is not. People are still looking for something to meet their spiritual needs. They still want to be connected to a benevolent power in the universe. They still want to believe that God actually loves them and hopes for their wholeness. People want to believe in compassion, they want to believe that we are all are connected and that together human beings do so much better than we do alone.
I believe with all my heart that the church still has a word to speak to these seekers. I believe that we here in this church have a word to speak. I also think, like Jesus and Zoe, we’re going to have to go outside the boundaries of traditional religion to speak that word to others. It’s great to do what we can to welcome people who come up this hill to church…but the folks who are going to come here on their own is dwindling fast.
In the future—the future that begins today—if we want folks to hear the good news that God loves them and hopes for their wholeness, we’re going to have to go meet them where they are. We’re going to have to speak the words of the good news as if we authored them. We’re going to have to convince people by the way we live our lives that they are more important than rules. It’s what Zoe Baxter did with Lucy. It’s what Jesus did in the synagogue. It’s what we must do if this church—Pilgrimage United Church of Christ—is to maintain its relevance in this community.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.