My sleep has been disturbed by many things. On occasion, a recurring nightmare dragged me from sleep into the sinking feeling and elevated heart rate that only a good nightmare can give. While the setting changed, the theme was consistent. I found myself in an unfamiliar sanctuary, hall, or room surrounded by people largely unknown to me. They were ushering me to get up and preach. The problem was I had no sermon prepared. In one version, water begins to rise around my ankles, and I find I’m actually in a big boat, sinking, while the people want to know what I have to say. This is a very typical nightmare for someone who spends lots of time talking in front of people.
The newest version of this nightmare continues the theme of being in a church to preach and not being prepared. The change is – no people. The room is empty. I spend my time looking for the people so I can do that thing I do. I don’t have any luck. I wake up. I think the feeling is worse. I also know what this dream is about.
Jake Meador recently wrote an article published in The Atlantic entitled, The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church. He says:
“Forty million Americans have stopped attending church in the past 25 years. That’s something like 12 percent of the population, and it represents the largest concentrated change in church attendance in American history. As a Christian, I feel this shift acutely. My wife and I wonder whether the institutions and communities that have helped preserve us in our own faith will still exist for our four children, let alone whatever grandkids we might one day have.”
He has named the cause of my nightmare as a leader of the church and a person of faith. The nightmare continues into my waking and working hours as I come to grips with Meador’s next observation:
Meador notes, “This change is also bad news for America as a whole: Participation in a religious community generally correlates with better health outcomes and longer life, higher financial generosity, and more stable families—all of which are desperately needed in a nation with rising rates of loneliness, mental illness, and alcohol and drug dependency.”
Like a medical professional who knows they can heal only to have the patient refuse the treatment, people of faith and religious leaders know we can help. Yet, fewer and fewer want or will accept the saving words of grace, reconciliation, and the rich life that a loving community can give.
I know what many, maybe most of you are thinking: “Pastor, there just is not enough time. I’m too busy to add church to my schedule.” I get it. Our individualized, go-fast, get-it-now culture does not have space for the patient and long-term engagement in communal life required by faith.
Meador warns that we should examine that reasoning before we go too far. If the “busyness” model of life and individual striving was working and not sucking the life out of us, it would make sense to hang on to it. He writes:
“The problem in front of us is not that we have a healthy, sustainable society that doesn’t have room for church. The problem is that many Americans have adopted a way of life that has left us lonely, anxious, and uncertain of how to live in community with other people.”
My waking nightmares come as I imagine a future where people have become so disconnected and so unable to live the faith that the church as we know it just disappears. Enough people said, “Nope, I can’t find time to be part of what God is doing in the world” and so the church buildings are all converted to car washes, retail space, trendy restaurants, and housing for the wealthy. A few people might gather a little money to keep a religious professional on retainer for rites of passage and services in time of need, but the stories and the communities that shaped generation after generation will be lost.
I trust the power of the Holy Spirit revealed in Christ to make sure that the people of God survive. We may just have to revisit what it means to follow him. One more quote form Meador’s article:
In the Gospels, Jesus tells his first disciples to leave their old way of life behind, going so far as abandoning their plow or fishing nets where they are and, if necessary, even leaving behind their parents. A church that doesn’t expect at least this much from one another isn’t really a church in the way Jesus spoke about it. If Graham and Davis are right, it also is likely a church that won’t survive the challenges facing us today.
Saying “no” to the call of Christ – which comes through the church – is cause for bad dreams and waking nightmares. It is not, however, a cause for despair. We can still learn to say “Yes.”
Tim Olson, Lead Pastor