November 21, 2023

From the Rector…

Since the 1990s, church attendance has seen a rapid and significant decline. That decline continues today with the pandemic causing a sharp drop in attendance. The word for this phenomenon is “dechurching”. It is estimated that about 16% of adults in America who use to go to church, no longer attend. That is roughly 40 million people. A new book out studies this phenomenon and offers some hopeful observations in three categories: believing, belonging, behaving—these three aspects often dictate participation and potential reengagement in religious communities. 

The believing aspect a person may hold typically relates to how orthodox their belief system might be. We might think that people who hold the same beliefs would attend the same churches. For instance, Baptists don’t believe in drinking. Which may lead us to believe that all Baptists are non-drinkers. This may or may not actually be true according to our experience. There is an old joke that asks how many Baptists you take with you fishing? Two—if you only took one, he might drink all your beer. Joking aside, you might see that belief is less likely a driver for a particular church community you choose to belong to. Growing up in Selma, several Jewish people attended St. Paul’s but never became members much less Christians. They attended for a different reason than orthodox Christian belief.

Belonging is a significant factor in why we become a member of certain groups. To feel like we belong to something gives us a greater sense of purpose and manifests in us certain behaviors. Steve and I are members of Tide Pride—the organization that governs athletic tickets at the University of Alabama. As members we are rewarded with the opportunity to purchase tickets to various sporting events including football games. Each year we go to several home games in Tuscaloosa to cheer on the Tide. We feel a sense of belonging in a stadium of well over 100,000 fans. We share common purpose, wear common clothes, and yell common rites (we call them “cheers” in sports language). More specifically, we feel we belong to a very identifiable group of people who sit around us. Having sat in the same seats for several years, we know and have met several people who sit nearby. We might only see them five or six times a year, but we still feel we belong to one another. Our sense of belonging can be broadly speaking or more personal—either way it is important to us.

In the church, belonging becomes a path toward greater fulfillment and deeper connectivity with other humans. We may or may not share the exact same beliefs, but in church we grow in relationships with people we might not otherwise know or socialize with. The capacity for compassion and transformation is directly related to our ability to connect with others who are different from us. That connection is not dependent upon agreement in belief or anything else; it is dependent on our ability to include one another. As a church family we can allow each other a sense of belonging without conforming to any one person’s or groups’ particular desires. That is challenging but rewarding when practiced in spiritually healthy and emotionally mature ways.

Behaving is akin to discipleship in that it governs how we practice spiritual discipline. No one likes the word discipline as it is usually loaded with lots of negative connotations. Discipline and discipleship are rooted in the same word—to shy from one, may well reflect a shying away from the other. Discipline does not have to be only thought of in the negative. Self-discipline is often highly valued and commented upon in positive ways. To practice spiritual discipline is to prioritize a relationship with God. In considering how we participate in faith communities, spiritual disciplines cannot simply reflect periods of prayer and Bible study or devotional time, they must also demonstrate a level of physical activity like attending worship in-person and getting involved in hands-on ministry or mission. These more communal-driven expressions of behaving have resounding effects on our Christian purpose and life.

The challenge for us is in understanding the ways we believe, belong, and behave as Christians and, more specifically, as members of Ascension. Becoming more intentional in these three areas of the Christian life helps us to grow as witnesses to the faith and encourages our hope in God and the church. Our lives then become an invitation to others who desire greater fulfillment in life and may well be seeking it in every place but the church—which is the one place they can and should find it. When we invite others to healthier ways of belief, belonging, and behaving we are witnessing to the power of Christ in our own lives and sharing that power with others. 

Invite someone to belong—literally. Ask a friend or a co-worker or someone who you hear a deep desire for something more in this life to come with you to church, to share a meal with you in your home, to be a part of something deeper. We can grouse all we want about the unsettling trends of church attendance, or we can do something about it. It is as simple as extending an invitation. 

Light and Life,