A Cure for the Lonely Church

Weddings are celebrations that mark a change of life. We love to go to weddings. Weddings bring together friends, family, and acquaintances ready and willing to experience the momentary spark of love and hope. Weddings often take place in a church setting, which reminds us that the Church universal is imagined as the Bride of Christ. But lately we’ve been wondering if the Bride of Christ is more lonely than hopeful and loving. It’s not that we don’t have hope, nor that we don’t love, for both hope and love are central to who we are. Rather we are lonely because we are dwindling in significance in society, and we are missing our most valued members: the poor, the disenfranchised, and the young. The church is no longer filled with a reflection of the fullness of society, but instead is half-filled with a small and narrow segment of society.

So we’ve been wondering if the church is missing herself. Missing her young, her bright ideas, her lost-who-can-be-found, her hopeless-needing-hope. Have we become like the Empty Nesters who once knew the fullness of home but now are experiencing separation anxiety as the young leave and come home only for the momentary visits? Is the sound of our “Silent Night” becoming literal, echoing a whisper of hope in the world full of the cacophony of diverse shouts?

Jesus said to the Pharisees that the rocks would shout out if we didn’t bring our full-on praise. Many churches are, thankfully, places of prayer and worship and praise, where people can find God in a troubled world. We are so grateful for them. And some of our churches are fading, and we are both grateful for their history and sad for their current state of affairs. It’s time for us to pay attention. It’s possible God is up to something we can’t imagine, and if we stop and listen, we just might find a new way. So, we are looking—and learning—from the places where the rocks are crying out.

The cities are one type of place we’ve heard the rocks crying out. Young people are flocking to our country’s urban centers. While for some of these young urban dwellers, attending church is a given, most have little interest in being a part of organized religion. This lack of interest might stem from the perception that religion is judgmental, too political, and anti-science. However, we believe it is also because the culture of “new urbanism,” along with other secular trends and practices, are more relevant, meaningful, and authentic than what many churches have to offer. While many churches in the suburbs act as the community gathering places and social hubs of their neighborhoods, the culture created in the urban core often fulfills these needs. For some, it’s community and connection without all the baggage of religion, but overall it’s just a more meaningful, diverse, and interesting way for many to experience those things. Regardless of whether we agree or not with their reasoning, those who are abandoning or avoiding organized religion are making their way to the city. A 2015 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that “the religiously unaffiliated is the top ‘religious’ group—or tied for the top religious group—in 10 of the major metro areas.” If we’re looking to better understand the cosmic shifts in religion and spirituality in the United States, urban centers are key to our understanding.

People are drawn to cities right now because they are looking to escape the sameness and unsustainable lives in the suburbs: the six-lane mega-roads, lack of walkability, lack of culture, strip malls, mega-malls, big box stores, gated neighborhoods, and chain restaurants. Instead, they are moving to cities and finding a deep sense of community in the urban core. You need only walk into one of the amazing locally owned and managed restaurants or bars in an urban center to feel the communal vibe. The same is true for the art galleries, yoga studios, co-working spaces, independent coffee shops, mixers for professionals and entrepreneurs, and community festivals—all of which create a neighborhood and small community feel in our cities. These are the new gathering places and social spaces; these are the places offering creative transformation and hope; these are the places where many are now finding meaning and connection.

Though churches are some of the last places many young people would voluntarily enter, that does not mean the religious commitments have come to an end. Many who have left church still hold religious and spiritual beliefs. These folks have often given up trying to live out their faith through institutions they no longer see as relevant. However, there seems to be, more than ever, a deep longing to connect with something bigger than oneself on spiritual and communal levels. Is there still a chance, then, that churches could once again become that place for spiritual connection, growth, and community? We believe there is.

In The Sacred Secular we go deeper into the places and spaces where the rocks are crying out, listening to, and learning from, the stories of the those who inhabit them. We do so not because these secular arenas are free of their own problems or because they offer quick fix solutions to church growth. Instead, we offer leaders, and all those who care about the church, an invitation to listen to the still small voice of God that is speaking through the lives of our neighbors. It is only then that we will not simply hear what they are saying, but we will truly understand and enter into mutual relationship with them, as well.


(This article is excerpted from Dottie Escobedo Frank and Rob Rynders’s book The Sacred Secular: How God Is Using the World to Shape the Church.)

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