A new book out this month caught my eye. The title, Why Nobody Goes To Church Anymore, probably invites a thousand different responses, many of which could be thoughtful while a roughly equal number of others might be scornful and acid-tinged. I’m guessing few people seeing that title will be neutral about it.
It’s a book I could have written; not necessarily the way the authors (Thom and Joani Schultz) wrote it, but their title/question is definitely a query I’m able to answer. I’m unfamiliar with the Schultzes but the couple has several other books including Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything At Church.)
Though I didn’t find much biographical info about this couple, Amazon‘s introductory sample pages provide details of their association with Group Magazine and also, that they share a passion for seeing lives transformed through the power of Jesus Christ. An interview with the couple on the Group Magazine website reflects their heart for youth ministry.
Since I haven’t yet read the book, a critique would be unfair. However, the table of contents leads me to conclude I’d agree with much of what they say. I’m especially interested in the four acts of love they propose as transformative for the church: loving with (1) radical hospitality, (2) fearless conversation, (3) genuine humility and (4) divine anticipation. I’d likely share their primary thesis, but books presently on my night table take precedence. I’ll reserve further comment until I’ve read the book.
My own experience with churches is lifelong. My dad’s family were organizers of the first German Baptist church (founded in 1849) in St. Louis. My mom’s family was similarly involved in founding at least one church in Pennsylvania. I don’t know whether those churches faced attendance problems, but I remember an attendance board like the one at left was almost always a prominent fixture of churches I knew.
As a teenager, I attended a Plymouth Brethren (PB) church. Having come from a Baptist church, we were outsiders. They were delighted to have us as members, but our unfamiliarity with PB traditions set us apart. I well remember thinking the core members tended to be older, and families with children (like mine) were the exception rather than the rule.
My long history with churches is peripheral. Let’s turn a corner. During my daily exercise (on an elliptical), I usually watch television. It distracts me from the seemingly endless (really, only 30 minutes) one-foot-in-front-of-the-other monotony. Often, I tune into a TCM movie (no commercials) or find something tolerable on Netflix or Hulu.
This week, I decided to try a British series Hulu had advertised. Didn’t know if I’d like it but figured it had an agreeable premise. It’s called Rev. and features an Anglican vicar named Adam who serves an inner-city London parish. Adam struggles to build the dwindling church membership while ministering to a diverse flock. Having only watched the first two episodes, I’m still reserving judgment, but the show is appealing (though imperfect). It resonates with a refreshing authenticity.
The second episode struck a strong chord. A charismatic vicar named Darren meets with Adam to request permission to use Adam’s parish hall (for Sunday services) while Darren’s parish hall is being remodeled. Darren’s a photogenic man, head and shoulders taller than Adam. He wears civilian garb rather than the typical vicar collar and robe. His speech is generously sprinkled with words like “cool” and “awesome.” Of course, Darren enthusiastically proclaims, “Jesus is awesome!”
Adam consents to the temporary merging of congregations, but by Sunday, the stately worship hall has been jarringly transformed − pews pushed back, luxurious couches, flat-screen televisions and blaring sound system installed. The coffeepot once located on a back corner table has been replaced by a fruit smoothie bar. Darren’s congregants are mostly an under-30 crowd, hip and animated. Taking a cue from Jay Leno of The Tonight Show, Darren waltzes in from offstage to rousing cheers and applause.
The most memorable scene (for me) occurs when Darren introduces a rapper to perform special music. The rapper makes a sign of the Cross and then delivers a peppy number with this refrain:
Love me, take me, Jesus.
Make me feel brand new!
Love me, take me, Jesus,
Our resurrected Jew.
Of course, the show is meant to be provocative. Several commenters condemn Rev. as blasphemous and sacrilegious. In part, I agree (and there is salty language).
But I like Adam’s character. He prays (in voice-over). He loves his wife and she genuinely loves him. The tension Adam feels comparing his shrinking congregation to Darren’s youthful growing congregation resembles a bonafide tension many churches encounter.
The question Thom and Joani Schultz pose with their book must be asked: Why would anyone go to church anymore, especially if it compares to Adam’s dying parish? But the opposite question also begs an answer: What is it about Darren’s parish that draws the young folks? How many pastors have asked themselves those questions in the last year?
Once I’ve watched a few more episodes, I’ll have a better sense of Rev. For now, it seems as though they’re seeking to entertain, but as a side benefit, they’re asking good, incisive questions … and if they continue, that’s what will keep me watching.
Besides, Jesus is awesome!