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

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Take a Chill Pill," Says This Canadian Pastor

There's been a lot of Chicken Little talk among PC(USA) folk in recent years. Church membership has been declining for decades, and worship attendance as well (although not so rapidly).  Add to that some clueless news coverage - like the "death of the Church" articles that followed the Pew Research Report, "America's Changing Religious Landscape," of about a year ago - and some of us are left wondering if, one day, we may be the proverbial last ones left to turn off the lights.

Well, Mark Twain was a Presbyterian, so I guess his church is entitled to borrow his famous line, "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

Recently I ran across a blog post by a Canadian pastor, Erik Parker. He wrote it about a year ago, in response to the hand-wringing of his neighbors south of the border. It's one of the most insightful reflections I've ever read, explaining our changed circumstances as the church in a rapidly secularizing culture.

Take a chill pill, he's saying to us. You forget, we Canadians are ahead of you when it comes to dealing with the effects of secularization. Sure, the church is changing, but it's not - I repeat - it's NOT dying. Or, if it is, it's the sort of fruitful dying that prepares the way for rebirth.

That's a paraphrase. What he does say, in broad outline - and you should read his column for the full story - is:

1. The Golden Era of Church attendance in the 1950s was the abnormality.  

2. What we are seeing is the death of Christendom… not the Church. 

3. We like to think that we are the ones who can finally do the church in. (We shouldn't flatter ourselves; it's Christ's church, not ours.)

My formative childhood experiences of church took place in the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson presidencies. I can still recall walking down the sidewalk with my family to the old Presbyterian Church of Toms River (the one that became the County Library headquarters, after the congregation relocated to a larger building). My mother wore white gloves and a pert little Sunday hat. My father wore a dapper Mad Men suit. My brother Jim and I were outfitted with clip-on bow ties and crew cuts. It was all very Mayberry.

Everybody who was anybody in our little town went to church or synagogue on Sundays - if not our Presbyterian Church, then one of the other houses of worship. It was just what you did.

As I grew up, going to college and seminary, then eventually returning to Ocean County to pastor another congregation, I had a ringside seat to view the great decline of American civil religion. I didn't know it at the time, but that's exactly what was happening.

I remember the time, a few years into my ministry in Point Pleasant, when a bunch of us pastors got together to lobby the leaders of the local Pop Warner football league. We were trying to get them to move their games to a time other than Sunday mornings, so parents wouldn't have to choose between Sunday School and sports for their children. That sort of scheduling would never have happened when I was a kid of pee-wee football age. It wouldn't even have been considered. We got absolutely nowhere with those football dads, for whom elusive dreams of college scholarships for their kids trumped any value that could come of belonging to a church. We didn't know it when we walked into that room, but we had lost the battle before the conversation even began.

Erik Parker, and other Canadian pastors, have been through this transition already - the transition to to a church without the secular props we have come to depend on for so long. We're panicking, he reassures us, "about a society and culture that is no longer evangelizing for us." That's all. We've had it soft for a very long time, and now we've got to start pulling our own weight: as the church has always done, through most of its history.

Most of us long-experienced pastors have never known anything different. Today's Millennial pastors are graduating from seminary with wholly different expectations.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It does, evidently, appear to be God's thing, so who am I to complain?