A Sermon No One Will Hear
In the world of Elenor Rigby, no one has time to listen to a sermon by a priest about a woman no one knows or cares to know.
Note: This article was written in September 2021. Since it is related to my previous post, I thought I would share it here.
I arrive at church sometime after 9 am on Sunday morning. Service starts at 10 am. That gives me enough time to set up the sanctuary for this morning’s service. As I’m getting ready, I start to wonder if anyone will actually make it to worship. I am reminded of the song, “Elenor Rigby” by the Beatles. The second verse talks about Father McKenzie writing a sermon that “no one will hear.” I usually have my sermon written up, but I wonder: who will hear my sermon? Will I be preaching to an empty sanctuary? Will anyone be watching the live stream? I usually don’t know until about five minutes before the service starts.
It’s heartbreaking to hear about a pastor writing a sermon that no one is going to hear. Sermons are meant to be heard. A sermon should be good news, the gospel of Jesus. In the world of Elenor Rigby, no one has time to listen to a sermon by a priest about a woman no one knows or cares to know. This is a world where the church doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.
This brings me back to Sunday morning. Who will attend? Will my sermon be one with only one person, my mother, in the audience? Does this small church matter to anyone? To the community? To the members? To God?
Life After COVID
Being the pastor of a small church is not easy these days, especially in the wake of the pandemic. A year of not watching church from your laptop screen has told a lot of people that they don’t really need to go to church. Regardless of theology, churches are seeing a loss in attendance since churches opened back up.
I don’t have any stats to back this up, but I tend to think that loss is even worse in mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve. I’ve seen a number of churches in my own denomination that were basically undone by the pandemic.
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Mainline Protestant denominations have not had a good few decades. The seven denominations that make up the Mainline churches have bled members since the 1960s.
The reaction to the shrinking nature of churches has been greeted with panic, but in the nearly 20 years I’ve been a minister, the loss shrinking of the church is greeted with shrug. No church will last forever, I’ve heard. Congregations live, congregations die. The unspoken belief among the mainline is to manage decline. Church members got the message and started to see churches in more consumerist terms. I’ve encountered people who will look at their congregation and yes, shrug. I’ll find another congregation, they say. Mainline congregations are regularly closed and celebrated. Few new churches are planted.
Critics both within and without the tradition tend think the reason Mainline churches are trending downward is because of their liberal theology. If these churches didn’t open up to gay members, they would still have filled sanctuaries, they say. But I find that hard to believe.
Mainline churches have a great history in the United States, but their demise is being greeted with indifference. It feels that no one cares if these churches go away.
Writing a sermon no one will hear.
Pastor and professor Ryan Burge, wrote a moving article earlier in the summer about the declining mainline congregations in his town. He mourns their loss because it means that people who might have more moderate views on social issues but also take their faith seriously, may face a day when there is no church for them to call home. He writes:
Some people desperately want to be part of a Christian community. They love the Gospel story of a simple man from Galilee who lived a sinless life and died an innocent death on the cross, that somehow saves all of us from our sins. They believe in the redemption of that simple act. But, they also believe that women can and should preach and that if two men or women want to marry each other, that’s none of their concern. Shouldn’t those types of people have a few options for a church home as well?
The data is exceedingly clear on this point. Most of those people who would like to still be a Christian, but can’t be an evangelical, aren’t gritting their teeth and going to the local Southern Baptist or non-denominational congregation. They are leaving religion behind entirely and not looking back. As a pastor, I cannot fathom how anyone thinks that is the best outcome. Unfortunately, for many evangelicals they have a view of church that is simply “if you don’t agree with our theology completely, then you might as well have no religion at all.”
I will add that as an openly gay man, mainline churches are the only place I can call home. There are many things that I admire about evangelical churches, but I couldn’t be a pastor in those churches and in some cases wouldn’t even allow me to be a member.
Which is why we need to work at keeping this tradition going. But I fear at times that Mainline Christians have lost the plot. What is this faith all about? Why do churches matter? I feel at times we can’t answer those questions.
No More Zombie Churches!
The writer Fredrica Matthews-Green wrote an essay a few years ago called “How to Revive a Dead Church.” In it she discusses how people tend to choose communities of faith like they would buying a new car. “They think like consumers and seek an experience that is enjoyable, edifying, and convenient,” she says. “ They have little reason to stick around when a church fails the audition; there’s always another church, just a block away.”
She offers those who are looking for a new church home to do something that is definitely countercultural: visit a “dead” church and invest time in it. Matthews-Green notes,“When you visit such a church, your impulse is to leave and find another one that’s more alive. But there’s another possibility: a “dead” church can be revived. There are things you can do to bring a church to life.”
She offers some tips on what to do which include connecting with the spiritually engaged in the congregation and using the church directory to pray for each member. She closes the essay by saying that taking this approach in finding a community of faith instead of picking a church like a consumer is more in keeping of who Jesus is because where Jesus is there is resurrection. “By finding and befriending other church members who are spiritually strong, by following the pastor’s vision and by supporting in prayer the work God is already doing, you can help bring a congregation to life.”
I tend to like this approach. Instead of churches having to find the latest thing that will turn them around, what if people decided to pull up stakes and become a part of a dying church in the hopes of bringing it back to life? What if in doing that, people are able to hear the good news that Jesus loves them?
Claiming the Promise
Lutheran pastor Dwight Zscheile wrote an intriguing article in 2019 wondering if the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be around in 30 years. He offers some ideas on how to turn churches around, but it’s his closing paragraph that I want to share. Maybe the goal here is not to “fix” things. It’s not to greet them with a shrug either. It’s about making God real to our neighbors and others around us:
The dismantling of the inherited congregational and denominational structures may be the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of the devil, or just the byproduct of the end of the Age of Mobilization (when Americans organized themselves into voluntary societies to get things done) and the rise of the Age of Authenticity (when Americans looked inward to discover and express their true self). Trying to reverse it is pointless. It is better to get clear on what God’s promises in Christ are for us and for our neighbors and find simple ways to make those promises come alive for ordinary people in ways they can understand and embody.
Maybe at the end of the day what is needed is people who are faithful. People gather at church to hear the word read and preached and to take part in the bread and wine. Maybe it’s the church giving a cup of cold water to those in need because this is what Jesus would do.
Being faithful isn’t a plan, but it is about caring, caring for our neighbors and for those who have yet to darken the door of a church.
Soon, I will be writing another sermon. Will anyone hear it? I hope so. But even if no one hears it, I will preach it anyway because that’s what it means to be faithful. For you, being faithful might mean going to that broken-down church with 10 people in service. For me, maybe that faithfulness will create space for people to be able to hear the word and worship with others in a community. Either way, we greet the community not with a shrug, but with eyes looking upward in hope.