“Church Ain’t Shucks to a Circus!”
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 14, 2004
Who would have known that, in time, Tom Sawyer would emerge as a spokesman for (perhaps) the largest religious group in America? Who could have known that good ol’ Tom would become in time the poster child of the Unchurched?
For Tom Sawyer’s exclamation to Huckleberry Finn—“Church ain’t shucks to a circus!”—could very serve as a sort of rallying cry in our own day and age.
There is plenty of evidence around us that the mainstream church in America is in steady decline. The nine major mainline Protestant denominations lost 22 percent of their membership between 1970 and 1997, a decline of 5.8 million. At the time of the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, there were approximately 265,000 adult UUs. By 1982, there were only 172,000, and while the severe membership decline which our denomination experienced during the 1960s and 1970s has been (thankfully) reversed—and today there are just over 200,000 official Unitarian Universalists in North America—our membership growth has not kept up with the overall growth of the population as a whole. There is much evidence that the church in America is in decline, and is exerting decreased influence over society at large. It is also estimated that there are approximately 61 million Americans who are “Unchurched”—61 million men and women who attend no church whatsoever on a regular basis.
But this is not the way it has to be. Nor is it the way it is for everyone. Over the same time period discussed above (that is, from 1970 through 1997) the nine leading Evangelical denominations gained about six-and-one-half million new adherents, a startling membership increase of 40 percent. The Catholic Church, too, in spite of all the internal dislocation it has experienced in recent years, is growing as well—fueled largely by the influx of non-English speaking Catholics from other countries where faith is still a high priority. (Catholic full or confirmed membership grew by about 28 percent between 1970 and 1997.) .
It’s a mixed bag certainly. For many, regular attendance at church is of paramount importance. For these people, the ways of faith determine how they will lead their lives; what they will think; who they will vote for. Pollsters have been telling us incessantly over the past two weeks that it was “regular church goers” and “people of faith” who gave President Bush his victory margin in this year’s election. For many people, their churches matter.
But for many others, the church hovers on the edge of irrelevance, at best. It has become completely out of touch with the fast paced, modern world. People say they have just too much to do to “bother” to attend church any more. In families where both parents work constantly, both within the home and outside—or, more especially, in single-parent homes-- discretionary time (a term rapidly in danger of becoming an oxymoron, sadly) is just too precious to “squander” on going to a worship service where (in the words of one observer) all one does is “stand up, sing a few hymns, sit down, and listen to a lecture”. Too often, the message of the church is couched in forms and rituals detached from the reality of the modern world—couched in sticky sentimentality, self-righteous moralizing, and detached, dry bones intellectualism. “Why bother with church?” 61 million Americans seem to be asking. “It’s boring, irrelevant, a waste of time. We have just too much to do.”
We certainly do have too much to do. It’s hard to believe that the term “job burnout” was coined only within the adult lifetimes of most of us. It’s a relatively new term—but already has established itself as a cornerstone of our society. Our circuits are fast becoming overloaded. We are often unable to cope. We are exposing ourselves to more and more—more and more work; more and more data; more and more tasks to perform and places to go; we are cramming more and more activity into already overcrowded schedules. But can we deny that we seem to be experiencing and feeling less and less?
To so many, the church has come to be viewed as just one more institution—one more burden—demanding time, energy, and money. By too many, perhaps, it has come to be seen as perhaps the least relevant and productive institution of all—as nothing more than a quaint old anachronism, at best. Is it any wonder, then, that the church has been jettisoned by so many?
Certainly, the church is, at least as we see it, a human institution. But I think that we are making a tragic error (and perhaps even committing spiritual suicide) when we view it as “just another” human institution. The church holds a particular and unique place in this society of ours. It is distinctly unlike any of those other institutions which also make their demands of us. For most of us, the church is the only place we have for the nurture of our spirits—the only place where most of us can pull our view away from the narrow here and now. As imperfect and limited as it certainly is, the church is the only place most of us have to ponder the workings of the divine in our daily lives.
For all of its external sophistication, ours is an amazingly narrow-minded and faddish age. We are tied, like no generation before us, to a truncated narrowly materialistic view of existence. If we were honest “Eat, drink, and be merry”—rather than “In God we trust”-- would be the motto we engrave on our currency.
Of course, we can not cling to the past. Of course, we ought not to live solely for the future, and neglect the glories of the day we have before us, right here and right now. But a life detached from its past cannot be a profound life. A life without a liberating and hopeful vision of the future is a life which lacks purpose and focus.
We need an institution in our lives which helps us to make connections: which helps us to relate the sacred and the secular; which helps us to relate our present reality to our roots, and to our visions. But does the church, as it exists today, fill the bill? Does the church—does this church—meet the spiritual needs of its members?
At times, some of the things we do here might seem awfully irrelevant to the lives we lead the rest of the week. Churches do change so very slooooowly… We do tend to cling a bit too staunchly to the way we’ve “always” done things; we are slow to innovate; miles away from the “cutting edge” in so many areas of life. One of our Unitarian Universalist ministers once remarked that other churches operate as though they were 2000 years out of date; we Unitarian Universalists, he said, seem to revel in the fact that we are “only” 75 years behind the times! Whichever you are—2000 years or (“only”) 75 years behind— you’ve already missed the train, as far as today’s fast, always changing pace of life ins concerned!
Perhaps the church is often out of step, and changes just too slowly. Perhaps we, too, could bear to remember the words of Pope John XXIII, addressed to his own church, at its Second Vatican Council: “We are not on Earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”
But could it be, too, that the church—in its deliberation; in its time-worn rituals and traditions; in its hewing determinedly to the long view of our human endeavor—might have a thing or two to offer us driven, frenetic, impatient modern women and men? Is it so bad to be part of something that moves deliberately? Is it so bad to be part of something which doesn’t feel the need to change constantly; to market itself incessantly; always to be on the lookout for the newest, jazziest, most contemporary bells and whistles? Can’t it be a wonderful thing to be part of something which attempts, humanly and imperfectly, but lovingly and caringly, to restore an element of stability—of permanence—or durability—back into our lives? Isn’t it wonderful to know that we share this sacred space—and this sacred quest—that we share this impossible dream of the spirit—with the generations that have come before, and with those who will follow?
The church, primarily through its worship, should strive to be a living presence in the lives of its people. That is what being a “flourishing garden of life” means. It means being a living presence, not an old, musty museum. But is there, really, anything “spiritual” about the way we do things in our church? Are we really religious at all?
That depends on each one of us.
The bottom line, I think, is that what we get out of church depends as much upon the attitude we bring with us, as upon what happens here. We will never be awakened spiritually if we resist the spiritual side of our natures with all our might. We are not, primarily, a religion of bell, book, and candle (ritual, creed, and dogma). Within our tradition, we all grow spiritually not by ingesting dutifully that which is imposed on us from “on high”. Rather, we grow spiritually by engaging in dialogue with our heritage—dialogue with our fellow pilgrims—and dialogue within ourselves. In the liberal religious tradition, the church is there to provide us with sustenance and nurture. It provides us with a community of faith—a church family—with whom we can share the journeys of our lives. The church also provides us with religious material for developing our own spiritual beings.
But we don’t come to church to “get religion”. The worship service may touch us emotionally, or it may engage us intellectually, or it may provide for us no more than an hour of peace in an otherwise harried week. But it is not up to the church—it is not up to the Minister—to deliver our spirituality to us, pre-packaged. Rather, we take what we have been presented on Sunday morning (and at other times during the week, in other church programs), and, as best we are able, we make it part of ourselves. The worship service can only come alive when we attend with critical, receptive, and expectant hearts and minds. If we come expecting to be entertained Sunday after Sunday, we are bound to go away often disappointed. If we come expecting some great rumblings and stirrings of our souls every week, then we may well become disheartened. But if we come to church bearing in mind the question—“How can I take that which has been presented to me here and use it to enrich my own life spiritually?”—then and only then can the liberal church experience be worthwhile and rewarding.
Unitarian Universalism is not always an easy religion to which to belong. For this reason, perhaps, we may be destined never to be a numerically large faith. We offer no cheap grace. We offer no easy answers. We won’t even tell you who to vote for (as much as I might like to). Generally, we help you to phrase the questions of your lives, and any answers we offer here are tentative, and usually thoroughly (perhaps overly) qualified. We know that life is about change, and, as Emerson taught, that those things believed as true today may be false tomorrow in the light of new experience and new wisdom. Life changes, we say—and so should religion.
We don’t deliver your religion to you, pre-made. We ask that you take an active role in discerning the religious and spiritual meaning inherent in your own life. That’s a lot to ask sometimes.
But if Unitarian Universalism is going to work, it has to be something we all own, and that we all support, and that we all participate in. That means making coming to church, and supporting our times of worship and our religious education program, and our other activities a priority in the lives of all of us.
We cannot expect our church to meet our needs if we do not come to church. We can only receive from the church experience in proportion that we bring to it.
I will admit that I feel quite frustrated sometimes when I look out and see evangelical and fundamentalist churches growing by leaps and bounds, while we continue to just plod along, satisfied if our churches hold their own, membership wise, from year to year.
It almost pains me at times to see the enthusiasm exhibited by so many members of more conservative churches—the pride with which they hold their churches’ work; the willingness and generosity with which they support them financially; the respect in which they hold their leadership; the priority they make attending church in their weekly schedules.
I know firsthand how many demands are constantly placed upon the time of all of us these days. We Unitarian Universalists are very busy people. But the Southern Baptists are busy, too. So are the Evangelicals, and the Fundamentalists, and the Pentecostals. But, we are told, it is their churches and assembly halls which are filled, Sunday after Sunday. (And now, they are filling our nation’s polling booths.)
I know that the vision our church offers to this hurting world is at least as precious—at least as faithful—at least as religious—at least as faith-filled-- as any of theirs. Churches which attend to their times of worship and fellowship together are the churches which grow and prosper. Those which neglect their community rituals are the ones which will flounder and decline. I know where I want this church, and this faith of ours, to stand. But whether it happens or not is something that’s up to all of us.
I know how hard many of you have worked over the years to keep this church afloat. (As I have said numerous times before, this is the hardest working church I have ever known.) Now, I am asking you to work even harder. I am asking you to renew your commitment to our church—especially to the worship and religious education aspects of our church, which are at the very heart of our existence. I am asking you to make attendance at church a priority in your lives. I am asking you to help me in reaching out to those who have fallen away from our church over the years. I am asking you to work with me in enlisting greater and broader support for the unifying, life-affirming, precious values for which our free faith—and this free church-- stands.
Church is just shucks to the circus. But who needs another circus? We have circuses enough all around, in the cultural and economic and political spheres. We don’t need any more glitter and gadgetry and cheap entertainment.
There are some who say that the only answer to the religious searching of modern men and women lies in a exclusivist, narrow-minded church tied helplessly to the ways of the past. There are others who say that the answer lies in not coming to church at all; that the only answer is to stay home and do “more important” things—or to watch TV, or to go to circus instead.
Let us begin, right now, to be bold ambassadors of another option: Let us declare boldly that it is possible to build a church which blends the best of the old and the best of the new, which speaks to both the warm heart and the open mind. It is possible to build a church which strives to meet the spiritual needs of the widest possible circle of men, women, and children in this world of ours.
“We were made for these times,” Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminds us. So was this church, and this faith of ours. Now may we assemble, all souls on deck to face the days we have ahead of us. For “Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks”—and from our sparks, kindled together, may we light new fires of love, and joy, and justice, and peace.