Over the weeks I have been interning a Marsh Chapel many of the old anxieties I have had about church have crept back into my head. I have for as long as I can remember always been uneasy with the form of Church, the steady ritual, the sterile feeling, the image of one man standing before a docile audience claiming to speak on behalf of the divine, and the collection plate, always the collection plate, serving as a stark reminder that this holy place is just that, a place, an institution situated in a society that demands each of us bow down at the alter of green idols.
Ok so I understand that my language may be a bit harsh and fail to approach the church with the appropriate amount of attention that its complex form deserves. Yes, the steady ritual is useful in removing the self and allowing the divine to take root where the individual personality would normally reside. Yes, my lamentation of the sterility of the church may simply be a holdover from the days of my Southern Baptist theological tradition. Yes, I understand the necessity of a priestly class charged with actively reflecting on moral questions and the words of wise me, I understand the need for a guide on our spiritual journey. And yes, I understand that the church is and cannot pretend not to be an institution in society, needing to rely upon the financial support of its congregation for the church’s maintenance, I understand the command to give a portion of one’s earnings back to God.
I understand all of these things in large measure as a result of my internship at Marsh Chapel, but the internship has also allowed me another perspective, sitting in front of the church near the pulpit within the chancel, during the service I have the privilege of looking out towards God’s assembled people. I take note of who is in the room, I examine what they are doing during each part of the service, I study their faces. And my observations have led me to one painful conclusion, God’s people are no longer in love with their church. While, many find meaning in the structure, mostly a fondness for childhood, Church for many has become empty ritual.
I don’t form this conclusion simply from my experience with Marsh Chapel. I take this from my various experiences with church back home in Atlanta, GA. I take this from conversations I’ve had with many students on campus who were brought up in a myriad of church traditions. I form this conclusion from the clear statistical evidence that America is becoming a more secular nation, measured not simply in a decline in the amount of people who attend church but also measured in a decline in the number of church attendees who believe that institution holds any authority. This trend is also coupled with a diminished number of people in America believing in absolute truth.
These sad trends can be correlated with any number of signs of moral degradation in our country: political corruption, divorce, debt-peonage, homelessness, imprisonment, drug use, single-parenting. But this is not the direction I wish to go with this post. As one sincerely wrestling with a call to ministry, I hold an a prior assumption that the church is a valuable institution that must be restored. However what to make of such an institution in a society that despises its very form. I believe first we, meaning those lovers of God, Truth, and Man, must begin with a full acknowledgement that the church must be born again. (To be continued)