Friday, December 9, 2022

What happened to the full pew?

The Church has always been one generation away from extinction -- at least from an earthly perspective.  Without insight into the will and purpose of God, we are often left to comfort or upset our souls with the earthly perspective on things.  That is what we have done -- wondering where all the youth and children have gone.

One of the more obvious conclusions is that the generation that is looking for the missing faces did not do its own job well and so they passed on a habit rather than a faith or a cultural view rather than a conviction.  I suppose there is truth in this.  It is certainly the case that today it is not merely a habit that benefits our children and grandchildren (though the good habit of being in church weekly is a good place to start).  It was and has has always been and will always be about catechesis -- teaching the faith with the habit.  If we kept the habit but left out the catechesis, our children and grandchildren will probably wash up on the rocks of why, what does it return to me, and what am I getting out of it.  If we had the catechesis with the habitus, then our children know whether these are the right questions and what are the correct answers to those questions that are legitimate.

There is also the wild card of marriage (although there is actually less marriage than before).  When the children of Christian parents and homes marry those who do not have the experience, background, habit, and understanding of worship, it is typical that the Christian's attendance will wane.  Without multiple generations in the pews to help, it is largely up to the one who did attend regularly and faithfully to explain why the family should be doing this together.  That is often less successful than we hope.  In the end, it is typical that after a while the faithful one becomes less faithful and the catechesis and habit of the home gives way to other things that compete with and distract from Christianity.

Yes, the culture has changed.  No, it is not as friendly toward the Church as it appeared to be in other generations.  But this is a familiar boogeyman that is not worth the blame.  Indeed, it is an easy and exploitable enemy to blame but one that often masks our own failures at home and in the Church.  Key among the issues is the fact that the Church is no longer essential to most folks idea of Christianity.  Long ago we bought into the lie that faith is self-starting, self-supporting, and self-sustaining.  With that came the extra burden on the Church to provide herself both relevant and worthwhile.  Since it is not a commonly accepted fact that faith requires the Church more than the Church requires the faithful, the Church is seen as more than less non-essential but even gets in the way of the faith.

It is not uncommon to hear some say that they feel closer to God on their own terms (such as hiking in nature) than they do through the means of grace.  What they are often saying is that the forms get in the way of their idea of communion.  They did not stumble upon this themselves but learned it from parents who themselves were not quite convinced the Church was essential and often judged the Church to be an impediment to a lively faith.  That said, the Church that will survive is not the Church that caters to the idea of relevancy but lacks the historic, transcendent, and reverent atmosphere for worship to take place.  If anything, the pop churches of the past may be trying to learn ritual and liturgy simply because their pews are suffering as much as anyone else's pews.  Still, I lay it at the feet of a well-intentioned but flawed catechesis that just keeps on giving the wrong message down to the third and fourth generation of those who love Him but not enough to worship Him.

If you want the pew full, teach them.  Teach them well.  Teach them well and build the habit.  Build the habit until it forces them to learn it all again.  Do it at home, in the classrooms of Sunday school and confirmation classes, and keep on doing it until we get it.  The problem is not figuring out what to say to a new generation (God's Word, duh) but the problem is teaching it until it informs their thinking and doing it until they cannot imagine not doing it.  But boy are we behind the 8 ball now....

1 comment:

Carl Vehse said...

"That is what we have done -- wondering where all the youth and children have gone."

It's mostly because fewer of them were ever conceived and born. The average U.S. family size decreased from 3.67 (1960) to 3.17 (2000) and has since remained between 3.13 and 3.18). This decline is also reflected in a similar decline for Missouri Synod families, as discussed in the Journal of Lutheran Mission: December 2016: Special Edition. The decreasing family size followed a declining birth rate (as seen in the Missouri Synod by a decline in the number of baptisms during this period) which can be attributed to:

- delayed marriage (to go to college)
- birth control
- infertility
- divorce
- student debt (which delays marriage)
- doctrinal change
- vocational confusion