Summertime Unease

The summer is a difficult time to be a church-attending believer.

The pews empty, what with church education programs closed down for summer break, clergy finally taking some long-anticipated vacation time, choirs enjoying their evenings free of rehearsals and every other family traveling somewhere. Some congregations do better than others, having a longer visiting clergy list to draw from, or a deep bench of talented musicians to call on to carry the songs and liturgies along.  But the offering plates are dangerously lean, and the newsletter articles about the summer mission trips are anxious and urgent in their optimism. In those congregations where there is literally nothing between services, the hours pastors walk the halls of an empty building during a 3 service Sunday is deadening to their spirit, believe me. The church seems more dying than asleep.

The only up sides I enjoy in summer church are easier parking and longer Sundays at home. Not good indicators of a strong communal future.

I have never felt the demise of the traditional Protestant parish to be so urgent as I have in the last two years. I’m sure my late optimism was driven into me, having graduated from a traditional Midwest Lutheran seminary full of teachers and administrators educated and serving in the heyday of the institutional Church, the 1950s and ’60’s.  A changing American church? They didn’t see it coming. Or if they did, they looked the other way. Ordained in 1984, I remember all the years of denominational articles, letters, programs, trainings and trips to stimulate the parish life I inherited. I knew I was captain to a ship taking on water. Members expected strength, growth and spiritual pride in their church. I bailed faster, and felt the panic deep within me. Some of that panic propelled me out of parish ministry in 2004. In the six years since, I’ve been quite focused on my training and work of family therapy. But I haven’t left.

I struggle with this common distraction and panic. Everywhere I turn, the denomination I claim as my own seems lost in a scramble for relevance. Liturgy, once rich with words and movements and rhythm has been replaced by giant screens flashing PowerPoint versions of reworded creeds. I am numbed and bored, and I don’t seem to have a place any more. The denomination I claim to be my second church home keeps moving along with a common liturgical focus and broad social net, but seems nonplussed by its lack of growth and aging congregants.

There is a new time of the Church coming, but I can’t see around the corner just yet. I’ve been reading the New Testament book of The Acts of the Apostles in the one hand, and Phyllis Tickle’s 2008 The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why in the other.  This summer, with empty pews and open parking lots, the questions seem particularly urgent. 

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