Would you go to church here? The truth is, more and more people are answering this question in the negative. Not just about specific churches but churches in general.
This spring, I attended a Sunday morning worship gathering here in Dublin. Liz and I did this monthly when we first arrived in Dublin in 2012, and we have wanted to revisit it. Much has changed since Covid, and we want to see how the (overall) church is doing.
It is said doctors make the worst patients. So, when I visit a church, I work at being positive and noticing the good. At the same time, I believe it is crucial to critique what we, as the church, do. In Ireland, just as in the States, the fastest growing religious group is the “Nones”. While you can find a lot out there blaming the Nones, the ex-vangelicals, or those who are deconstructing their faith, for why fewer people attend church than did previously, I believe the first place we need to look is at ourselves.
Before I offer a critique, there were some real positives. By all indications, the church is a warm, kind and generous congregation that goes a long way. We know enough about them to know they care about and serve their community. And those things are vital and more important than the two things I want to mention below.
What Are We Communicating?
What I mentioned above is big picture. What I want to say below is simply a snapshot. I was there on one day, so this may have been out of the ordinary. At the same time, I notice these things in many churches (in Ireland and the US), so I feel comfortable sharing my thoughts.
And please keep in mind I can often find a lot that I would do differently, but that doesn’t mean I’m right. However, there were two things that I do believe matter and want to mention.
Concern One – A Lack of Diversity
My first concern was the people on the stage or the platform. While they all seemed capable, they had three things in common.
- They were white.
- They had grey hair.
- They were men.
Fifty years ago, Ireland was a much whiter country than it is now. While the congregation did exhibit some of that diversity, the stage did not.
Elizabeth and I started two campus ministries and a church in the States. They were all diverse. The campus ministries were both minority white, which we loved. In 1997 we were part of a denomination and were considering leaving as we felt more and more like we were not a good fit. Our pastor invited us to attend the denomination’s national meeting believing it would be a good way for us to decide if we fit there.
Two things stood out to us, 1) the smell of hair spray made breathing uncomfortable, and 2) while we were large enough to be in the RCA Dome, the gathering was almost entirely white people.
Based on our histories, we are probably more sensitive to this issue than the average person in the average church.
But most people outside our churches are sensitive to it too. And it definitely matters to most young people.
Put yourself in the shoes of a young couple from, not Ireland. If you walked into that space and saw that group of people on stage, would you feel there was a place for you? Or, if you are a young Irish woman…what message is being sent to you?
Concern Two – Monologuing
During the service, several different people on the stage talked.
And other than when visitors were asked to introduce themselves (something every introvert hates and I refuse to take part in, but I digress), only people on the platform spoke. There was no conversation, and there was no interaction.
Again, for however long you are “at church”, the expectation is you will observe. There will be some points when you can participate, like the singing…but mostly, you sit and take it all in (unless you are told to stand or knell).
Most people are not geared to listen to a 90-minute monologue. Some spectacular speakers can hold your attention for that long…especially with a couple of good worship songs mixed in…but those are the exceptions.
And even if we could take in an hour or more of people talking, I don’t believe that is what these gatherings should look like.
We went with some friends from the Table to this service. One commented afterwards, “That was the longest church service ever”. I pointed out that when we meet, we generally go for at least 30 minutes longer. The difference is that there is dialogue. There is space to ask questions and interact. It doesn’t feel as long because you are engaged.
Imagine your kid going to a school where for 60 to 90 minutes at a time, the teacher talked and did not engage with the class.
This problem is not specific to this church, but it is a massive issue for the church. And one which needs to change.
And it isn’t simply about engaging with people. When you are instructed to sit down and are then talked to for an hour or so and given bible facts and tips for living, an important statement is being made about our faith.
We are saying that following Jesus is an information based endeavour. We tell you things…you learn and try to do them.
But it isn’t.
The things we do when we gather make a statement about what we believe and what we value. It tells people who matters more and who matters less. Sometimes it can be hard to look at what we do and notice because we are so used to them. Taking time to step back and look at what we are communicating is crucial.
What do you think?