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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Save the Last Dance for Me

Here I am in Minneapolis, a couple of days in advance of the General Assembly. The Association of Stated Clerks, our national professional organization, is having its annual meeting. It's good to meet with my colleagues from other presbyteries and synods, share war stories and generally talk with each other about how to do our jobs better.

This morning we heard a presentation by the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. Gradye's always got his analytical eye set on developments in the larger church. One statistic he shared with us got my attention, more than any other.

It seems the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a research study a couple of years ago, in which they queried Americans about their religious practices. The Pew researchers found that, of those who attend religious services at least annually, half these people - 35% of the general public - "say they regularly or occasionally attend religious services at different places, aside from when they are traveling and going to special events such as weddings and funerals." That's only slightly less than the number (37%) who report attending the same house of worship consistently.

Gradye called that statistic to our attention by pointing out that, of all the people we could realistically expect to be sitting in our pews on any given Sunday, just over a third "shop around" on a regular basis, when it comes to religious services.

Wow. So much for denominational "brand loyalty." So much, even, for loyalty to the congregation of which these spiritual buffet-browsers are members (if, indeed, they're interested in settling down and joining a church at all)!

I'd be interested to know how many of the sheep in our fold at Point Pleasant regularly graze in other pastures. Sure, I know of a few cases where the husband is from one religious tradition and the wife another, and they divide their time between two different churches. That, I can understand. Sure, there are some who skip out on summer Sundays to attend the nearby summer chapel that gives tall-steeple preachers the sweet deal of a week of beach vacation in exchange for a recycled sermon from their "greatest hits" list. Some others enjoy, from time to time, wandering north a few miles to sample the old-fashioned camp-meeting flavor of Ocean Grove's Methodist conference center.

Yet, as Gradye suggested to us, these numbers go way beyond the occasional summertime dalliance. The folks the Pew researchers uncovered, in such large numbers, may typically go to one church for the music, another for the preaching, still another for the contemporary service, and so on - with some even dividing their time between a church and, say, a Buddhist meditation center.

My late mother-in-law was one of these. A former Roman Catholic and, after that, a sometime Presbyterian, she liked to sample anything and everything spiritual. She used to describe herself as a "roamin' eclectic." Her tribe may be more numerous than many of us suspect.

Does this mean we've simply got to work all the harder to build congregational loyalty, and keep it - even as we're swimming upstream against a powerful societal trend? Or, should we just throw in the towel, declare "it's not our grandfather's church" anymore, dump our classic Calvinist high conception of the church and get used to the way things now are?

There are no easy answers to questions like these, but they call to mind the lyrics of the corny old pop song:

"But don't forget who's takin' you home
And in whose arms you're gonna be
So darling, save the last dance for me."

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