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Declining Numbers Demand Revised Approach to Church

No doubt, it’d be great to see a few more folks at church on Sunday. As nice as it is to have an entire pew (or two, or three) to myself, I’d gladly give up the surplus real estate for even a handful of extra voices to back me up on the hymn singing.

But if I’m really being honest with myself, there are times – probably more than I’m willing to admit – when my desire to include others in this weekly gathering is motivated less by love and more by fear. Fear of being in the minority. Fear of defending an unpopular choice. Fear of having climbed aboard what I’m sure a good number of my friends and family members assume to be – and what sometimes feels like – a sinking ship.

The latest study from the Pew Research Center certainly doesn’t help. “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing,” they report. “Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.”

Not exactly the sort of news that inspires confidence.

Tempting as it may be to rationalize such trends with a clever, if defensive, retort (“The number of those who consider themselves spiritual is actually rising, even if they don’t go to church” or, “We may be few, but we’re mighty”), in my heart I know that when it comes to packing pews, the only valid answer is to ditch the underlying fear for a broader, more consistent, more heartfelt expression of love.

My wish for additional hymn singers aside, I’d like to see as many people as possible benefiting from the sort of “love in action” or “practical divinity” espoused by such religious luminaries as John Wesley – that genuine, non-judgmental brand of love that aspires to meet the needs of one and all, without (ideally) the intent to convert. My sense is, though, that even more than a particular congregation’s collective love for others, it’s the individual member’s love for church and the tangible expressions of love for God and humanity that it represents that naturally, inevitably, attracts others.

My own love for church stretches back as far as I can remember. Even as a kid I had a sense that more than just a place to hang out with friends once or twice a week, church was where I learned I could rely on God – what church leader Mary Baker Eddy describes as an ever-present, all-powerful, always-loving “divine Principle” – for my every need.

As a teenager this assurance was put to the test when I found myself stranded on an icy mountain slope suffering from multiple external and internal injuries after having slid nearly a thousand feet off a precarious ridge. Before I had a chance to take inventory of what had just happened, the first thought that came to mind was “God” – that “divine Principle” I knew was keeping me safe and would be essential in my eventual and complete recovery.

Since then I’ve found myself relying again and again – and exclusively – on this same divine Principle when facing other, if less dramatic, challenges, including unemployment, relationship issues, a severe skin infection and, most recently, a debilitating back ailment.

I suppose there may be some who, after hearing stories like this, might be interested in joining me at church. Honestly, though, that doesn’t matter as much to me as the sense of love I hope I’m communicating – free of fear, devoid of any ulterior motive. After all, it’s not about whether anyone else loves church or what I might do to get them to love it, but whether I’m loving it myself, and letting this love motivate my actions.

As long as I’m secure in that, I’m sure the rest will follow, even a larger, more expansive expression of church that includes more people – and more hymn singers – within its healing embrace.

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