The Unchurched Visitor

I offer this article by Jim Taylor of Canada (there are Canadian references in his article).

“Joan bought me a CD of hit songs from the 1950s. If you’re anywhere near my age, you may remember Perry Como singing “I used to be a dance hall dandy, I knew all there was to know. I knew this-a-way, from that-a-way, Now I don’t know what’s goin’ on…” I never thought of Perry Como as a theologian. But in those long-ago lyrics, I hear an explanation for the current ills of many churches.

“Sociologist Reg Bibby believes that the downturn in church attendance may have bottomed out. The continuing decline among younger people seems to have slowed. There may even be a slight upturn in attendance. (That’s in Canada; the U.S. has not experienced the same precipitous slump.) Reg attributes this turnaround to a renewed interest in religion. Reg is a smart man. But I think he may have missed the point.

Church (and religion) is a social phenomenon, like cocktail parties, bingo, and bridge. If you don’t feel comfortable in that milieu, you won’t take part.

I recall taking Joan to a baseball game on a beautiful balmy summer night, long before we were married. Lights made the field glow emerald against the surrounding dark. I remember the crack of bat on ball, the thunk of ball in oiled glove, the raucous rulings of the umpire, dust rising behind the spikes of a runner racing to steal second… Joan was bored. She didn’t understand baseball.

The tables were turned on me, when I watched an outdoor chess game. The player I thought was losing, because he had fewer pieces left on the board, made a move. The bystanders burst into spontaneous applause. Checkmate! I didn’t have a clue what he had just done. If you don’t understand the moves, it’s all gibberish. Whether it’s baseball or chess. Or church.

On those occasions when non-churchgoers find themselves trapped in a worship service – mostly at weddings and funerals, but also at Christmas and Easter – I watch them fumble with bulletin and hymnbook. They don’t know what page to turn to. They don’t know when to stand, when to sit.

Regular churchgoers have some sense of what to expect. But for a stranger, the language, the symbols, the actions might as well be gibberish. Why these colors? Why these gestures? Why sing dirges? Why, in fact, read from a Bible, instead of from, say, Buckminster Fuller, Mark Twain, or Deepak Chopra? Once upon a time, everyone was familiar with the chess moves of the church. They didn’t necessarily care much, but they knew what was going on.

But today, church is an unfamiliar environment. Most people, I suspect, find themselves more comfortable with the conventions of the casino or the curling rink. Church makes them feel awkward. Like Perry Como, they “don’t know what’s goin’ on.” So they stay away. And they will continue to stay away from churches that expect them to learn a foreign culture before they can feel comfortable.

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