The Empty Church

Printer-friendly version

The Empty Church

Easter 2014

First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis

©2014 Rev. Thomas Perchlik

Many of you may remember from your childhood a little poem that had hand gestures to go with it: 

“Here is the Church [with palms together and interlaced fingers between them],

Here is the steeple [with forefingers raised]

Open the door [starting with the thumbs opening like doors, the palms separate and turn face-up while the fingers remain interlaced]

And see all the people! [the fingers wiggle and wave].”  

Of course, if you do it incorrectly [fingers interlaced on top] when the doors open, the church is empty.  In fact, the empty church has long been a symbol of failure or religious decline.   However, in Christianity, the empty tomb is a symbol of victory, and liberation, and change, even revolutionary change.  Perhaps the empty church also can be such a symbol.  The basic liberal Christian theology about church derives in part from a line in John’s Gospel (John 3:8).  Jesus in explaining spirituality says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."  Unitarians and Universalists claimed this line in defense of religious freedom; the church is not here to regulate the spirit, but to liberate it.  

Long, long ago I was part of a clergy study group heavily dominated by Methodists.  One day our conversation drifted into recent trends in religion.  This was back in the 1990s, but even then they could see the writing on the wall, like King Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, invoking doom for mainline Christianity.  One minister spoke his fear that the vast civilization of Christendom was at risk.  "What is to become of Christendom?" he asked us all.  Into the silence, I said, "With all due respect, who cares? Isn’t what we all want, not merely to nurture human traditions and institutions, but to create the living Kingdom of God, the beloved community of love and justice, truth and mercy?"  My friend agreed with me, but then waxed warmly about the beauty and majesty of the Christian tradition, and the civilization it has created.  I left him that, but felt as I walked away, the conversation had been a moment of revelation, one of those times when a wall, which I had not even known of, suddenly dissolved and I could see clear vistas beyond.  Beyond particular congregations, the church universal and beyond religious decline to spiritual awakening and resurrection.   

The fear of failing religion is an ancient one this fear but has gained particular focus in America around the results of the 2012 survey by the Pew Center for Research on Religion and Public Life. They revealed “one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” [].  

Those unaffiliated “include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as almost 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).”   What is more significant for mainline religion is the fact that, “Those who say they have never doubted the existence of God has decreased from 88 to 80%.”  This is a very significant and rapid shift in attitudes.  In tandem with this has been a rapid decline in the membership of some religious denominations.  In the US, White Evangelical and Mainline Protestants have experienced the largest decreases.  Although Catholicism has lost many adherents in recent decades, (at least before the election of Pope Francis) Catholic numbers have remained stable largely because immigrants are replacing those that are aging out or leaving.  

Of course, many anti-religious atheists have grabbed onto these statistics as a sign of the death of religion. I have read articles this past week, by religious and anti-religious people, who claim that the internet is killing religion.  Of course, back when it was illegal in England not to be part of the Anglican Church one Bishop complained that “for every one person in worship there are a hundred out on the lawn listening to pipers.”  And when the printing press was invented there were some who argued that once everyone had a copy of the Bible for themselves they would see it for what it was and leave Christianity altogether.  But that did not happen.  

In fact, it must be noted that when the Pew Center asked people with which religion they identify, and give them a list to choose from with the option of “none” at the bottom, two-thirds of those who mark “none” also say that they believe in God (68%).  â€œMore than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.”   

So, I conclude that it is not spirituality or religious beliefs that are dying so much as institutional religion that is being changed.  Some UUs have seen this rising group of "nones" as our new mission field.  The thinking is that if they are disaffected with regular religion they will love us.  The Pew Center says, "With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them.  Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics."

The counterpoint is that anyone must be concerned with these things and how they are applied. That is part of the strength of true religion.  Though everyone who wants to create peace must do the inner work, and everyone must do their individual and inter-personal work, in the end we also must engage in the institutional work, and institutional change.  So it is with racism, oppression or any social ill.  We engage in the work of changing institutions, but must also mistrust them.  Religious authority must be questioned. 

This reminds me of the story of the Bishop, who visited one of the large churches in his area and offered to fill the pulpit.  It should be noted that we Unitarian Universalists long ago let go of Bishops: emphasizing instead the authority found in the freedom of each conscience and the great power found in a congregation free from external control.  But this story is set in a denomination where Bishops still wield great institutional power.  When Sunday morning came, as the prelude was playing, the Bishop looked out from the chancel and only saw ten people in the pews.  He turned to the parish minister and asked, “Didn’t you tell people that I was going to be here?”  The minister shook his head and said, “No… but it looks like word got around anyway.” 

It is not just a disaffection with institutional religion that has increased the ranks of the ‘nones’.  The Pew Center also has seen the group who identify with "Other Faiths" went from 4% in 2007 to 6% of the US population in 2102.  (As an aside, they have moved us from the category of very liberal Protestants into this category of “other”).  The point here is that religious diversity in America is growing.  In fact, one of the fastest growing faiths in America is that of Islam.  So people who are faced with such a variety of choices may be less ready to set down with only one.   

 It has been my impression that there are always people who are really not deeply interested in religion, except for the fact that it is important to other people around them.  There is a famous couple of studies from the 20th century when Gallup Polling was predominant.  Their surveys showed that about 42% of the American people attended one religious service, synagogue, church or temple worship, once every week.  However, when sociologists actually went congregation to congregation and counted the people there they found only about 20% of the people in a given area were actually in worship that weekend.  So, these trends suggest that the ranks of the unaffiliated are swelling in surveys partly because Americans who were never that deeply committed are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether. 

Finally, there is a generational shift underway in American society.  For example, Jim Hinch, in the Winter 2013 edition of American Scholar, recounts the rise and fall of Robert Schuller’s Chrystal Cathedral in Orange County, California. The magazine editors placed these words on the cover: “The Empty Cathedral: Why Evangelical Christianity is going the way of the drive-in movie theater.”  Inspired by the old child's rhyme Hinch titled his article “Where are the People?”.  In his article, Hinch describes several churches that have developed as alternatives to the older evangelical model.  The members of one of these congregations meet in a Laundromat to worship, then they do the laundry of everyone else there for free. Thus service is part of their congregational life and worship. 

He quotes Rayan Bolger of Fuller Theological Seminary - “The megachurch was a baby-boomer suburban phenomenon that folks under 45 typically aren’t perpetuating”. Young evangelicals, instead, “want to start communities in cafes and… [have] a desire to move away from the churchiness of church to be multicultural and in an urban context, [to place] church in the profane areas of life.”  Now this building, this worship space is very “churchy”.  We have a aesthetic that is deeply rooted in New England Congregationalism.  I do not think this will fade.  I do not think this will go away ever completely, but we must open ourselves to new possibilities. Or perhaps we must simply see the church as we always have, as a living faith that takes place not merely in this building.  There are people who talk about “going to church” and place church only in this building.  But when those of us gathered at that anti-violence march yesterday up on West Florissant Avenue and marched down those streets where too many have died by bullet wounds.  I remember that some people cheered us on.  Some honked their horns in support, some even joined in. But I also saw a few small groups of young men, gathered in their yards. They did not have happy, supportive expressions on their faces.  They looked serious as they were watching us. I knew then that we were joining with that greater voice that says, ‘we will not be silent in the fact of this violence; we will not allow this criminal behavior to continue unchallenged.

In the same spirit we, as a congregation, have begun speaking out against the abuse of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons to take people in, as they are and thereby affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And we have seen economic injustice in this world and spoken out on behalf of the victims, and next week we will hear one of the “heroes of the planet” who sees the destruction of the web of life, who sees the passion of the earth. With him we say that we do not want the living web to be put into a tomb to be lost forever. We are looking for the resurrection of spring not only in the soil, but in our own spirits and hearts and minds.  This is always been the kind of people who are attracted to Unitarianism, and Universalism. Not only those who are trying to maintain an institution, not simply those who maintain a tradition, though we do that well.  This building has endured nearly ninety years, this Unitarian presence in St. Louis has grown to four congregations over a hundred and ninety because we know how to build institutions and we know their power, precisely because we know that it is not the institution we are serving. What we are serving is that movement in human hearts opening us to others across social and racial and ethnic divides. The movement of those who are reaching out and forming a more just and compassionate community, a more intelligent, and engaged and healing community.   

To wake up to the spirit, to be stirred by that spirit “that blows where it wishes”, to be moved by that spirit, that desire to make the world a better place: that is what is happening in churches now. 

Hinch concludes, “In a few years, perhaps a decade or two, religious America will catch up to Orange County’s present.  There will be a shrinking number of evangelical mega-churches… There will be numerous small, eclectic, multiethnic evangelical congregations [with a] emphasis on spiritual commitment and social service...  And there will be surging numbers of immigrant Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims…” In Christianity what is growing world-wide is Pentecostalism, which in its narrow sense is feeling excited about the spirit, but in its fullest is about opening to change and possibility and transformation, resurrection in its fullest sense. 

But the central point today is that the church is not a building, but the people who live by a certain spirit, by a lively mind and a compassionate heart.  If we do our work well here, then even when the church-building is empty the actual church is full.  Whenever we are doing the work: when we are in our homes, or in workplaces, or in the marketplace, we are in church if we are living by the spirit of love and justice, promoting the principles that move us deeply.  

Our deep theology has always been about a God that is free, or a Spirit that is free, or a Mind that is free.  We trust that power which cannot be chained to any institution or tradition, but can become alive in human hearts and actions, beyond the empty church.