Published: June 2007
"They have gone nowhere. They live with us, and beside us; they work with us and play with us; they laugh with us and cry with us. Now it is up to us to listen and learn and invite them home to a place that they know" (Michael Patterson, "We need the article title here", Niagara Anglican , February 2007).
What is that "place that they know"? Why is it that for years parish councils have been heard to cry that "we must get them to come to church", we must have "open doors"? Again and again we have taken the attitude that if services are interesting, if the sermon is good, people will come to church. But they don't.
Some years ago I attended a political meeting held in one of Hamilton's older churches (it was not Anglican!). I sat next to a young lady whom I knew as a member of our Friendship Centre at All Saints. She was showing distinct signs of discomfort and I tried to reassure her. She admitted to me that she was afraid, overwhelmed by the dark Gothic appearance of the church's interior. The presence of a friend made it possible for her to stay for the whole meeting, otherwise she would have left through discomfort.
The inside of traditional churches can be threatening to those who are unfamiliar with them. As a child we learn that "this is God's house" and we must behave ourselves when we are there. That immediately puts us under threat; God is all-powerful and the child's imagination can create all sorts of terrible consequences for misbehaviour, especially if there has ever been any mention of "hell". Gothic architecture is said to create the impression of being in a forest; remember what happened to the babes in the wood.
There is also the fact that many young people are actually turned off by being obliged to go to church or to Sunday School. A former rector used to complain that the choirboys were delivered to church on Sundays by a father who then left them while he went on to the golf course. Our Canadian Anglican Church seems to have learned that Confirmation has had its disadvantages: instead of being the required admission to Communion, it often deteriorated into a sort of graduation, marking the end of Sunday School and the need to return "next term". As often happens after a long summer holiday, the pupil is not exactly happy about going back to school. It's a case of "Tell me the old, old story". Church is over. At one time we had an active AYPA (Anglican Young Peoples' Association), but it has faded to a mere shadow of former times.
Canon Patterson used the word "truancy" to describe the feelings of some of those who have dropped away. Surely that is rather the sign of a guilty conscience? Going to church stirs up that sense of guilt, especially if we have had it drummed into us that we are all sinners. Why go to church if one is going to feel uncomfortable? Will I go to Hell if I don't go to church? Is God merciful? Unfortunately some self-righteous "regulars" consider that they have the right to judge and so drive the recalcitrant churchgoer away. It takes intestinal fortitude to continue to attend a church where one has been prejudged by so-called friends.
What are the criteria by which we who think we are "in the know" judge a "good" church service? Are they not generally the sermon, the music and, perhaps, the liturgy? If the sermon makes us uncomfortable, are we encouraged to return to that church? Do we feel that we would like to argue the point with a preacher, but have no opportunity because he or she is the authority? How many parishes do have dialogue sermons? How many who plan dialogue sermons encourage the congregation to take part--not by pre-arranged planning, but by impromptu interruptions? Would not such enquiries after truth cause consternation? Did St. Paul have it so smoothly in the Agora in Athens--or in Ephesus?...
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