Great piece by Tom Ehrich from the Religious Herald:
For five decades and in growing numbers, American Christians have been saying no to Sunday church. I think it is time we listened.
We have labeled them “unchurched,” “nonbelievers,” “former Christians,” “happy pagans,” “lost” and a “mission field” that’s “ripe for harvest.” These negative terms imply that the absent have a flaw that needs to be addressed.
New congregations have harvested some of these former mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churchgoers. But even their numbers rise and fall — especially when the founding pastor slips up or retires, and the overall trend in church participation remains down. In some Western states, Sunday churchgoing has fallen below 10 percent of the population.
When this slide commenced in 1964 as baby boomers began graduating from high school, many church leaders didn’t even acknowledge it. For years, they kept counting the absent as present. Then, when the losses couldn’t be ignored, they blamed them on whatever hot-button issues were roiling the religious establishment, as if new liturgies, women in leadership and liberals (or conservatives, take your pick) had driven people away.
We need to see that these “formers” aren’t saying no to God, or to their Christian identity, or to their yearning for faith. Many are simply saying no to Sunday church.
They are expressing a preference for something other than getting up early on Sunday, driving across town, sitting in a pew for an hour or more, making small talk with people they don’t really know, and driving home again.
They are saying no to Sunday, the only day they can get a slow start in this everyone-works-hard era.
They are saying no to being an audience in an age of participation and self-determination.
They are saying no to institutional preaching, repetitive liturgies and assemblies controlled by small cadres usually older than themselves.
They are saying no to being told what to believe.
They are saying no to having their questions ignored.
Instead, they find spiritual enrichment on the Internet and on television. They read faith-related books. They pray on their own. They find their own networks of faithful friends.
The problem isn’t their faith. The problem is Christianity’s delivery system. We are stuck in trying to lure people to physical locations at a time of our choosing, to do what we think they ought to do, and to be loyal in paying for it. It is time we looked beyond the paradigm of Sunday church.
I think the future lies in “multichanneling”: a combination of on-site, online, workplace and at-home offerings that create networks of self-determining constituents, many of whom might never attend Sunday church.
The first challenge, however, is to recognize how deeply wedded we are to Sunday, on-site participation as the only true expression and measure of faithfulness. Almost everything about our institutions — facilities, ordination training, staffing, budgeting — aims to draw people to a central location on Sunday.
We need to see that what works for some doesn’t work for others. Not because the others are flawed, nor because our culture has collapsed and turned against God, but because things change. Just as Jesus took his ministry out of the synagogue and radically rethought the meaning of Sabbath, so God is drawing us away from “former things,” even ones we treasure and consider our duty.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest. His Web site is www.morningwalkmedia.com.