I read a story in The New York Times about the crisis facing a Trappist monastery. (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/17/us/trappist-monks-mepkin-abbey.html) In the 1950s, there were 55 monks praying and working at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Now there 13, most of them in their 80s.
I experienced a sense of familiarity when I was reading this article. Although a Trappist monastery and a United Church of Canada congregation are very different in many ways, the basic issue is the same – the passing of a form of religious community and commitment.
The Trappists have it worse than us. There was a time when young men were eager to take a lifelong vow of prayer, silence, manual labour and celibacy. It was viewed as a high calling, and a heroic way of life. And the essence of that way of life – seclusion from the world, resistance to change – makes it all the harder.
But when you get right down to it, our problems are fundamentally the same. The number of people – especially young people – who find it spiritually and socially meaningful to commit to weekly participation in a congregation is dwindling. Our world operates according to rhythms that make that way of life very difficult. And increasingly people want to chart their own spiritual journeys without the burden of institutional forms.
The irony is that we live in a time of intense spiritual longing. People are feeling fragmented and dislocated, lonely and confused. The dramatic rise in mental health issues, addiction and stress-related illness is testament to the malaise of our culture. People are longing for connectedness, community, purpose, and meaning. They are aching for compassion and rest.
And so here’s the interesting thing about Mepkin Abbey. While the monks are getting old
and dying, the monastery’s retreat centre is fully booked months in advance.
(The monks have also found that the Abbey grounds are a stunning location for a wedding.)
What this says to me is that, while the specific form of religious observance and commitment is becoming unsustainable, there is something about the place and what it has to offer that still speaks to people’s souls and draws them to the Abbey.
The monks, God bless them, are trying to change. They are beginning to offer short-term monastic experiences – one month, a year – that don’t require a life-time vow. They know that, even though the supply of novices has dried up, there is still something they can offer.
This provides an analogy to our churches. There are things about us that are unsustainable.
But are there also things about our churches that people are longing for? Can we find different and imaginative ways to offer those?
Recently, I conducted a workshop at a congregation. I invited people to answer the question “Why don’t more people come to church?” That’s a good, open-ended question.
But then I said, “What if we turn that into a closed question and ask: Are people coming to church? Is it true that they're not coming?” Well, not as many. And not so much on Sunday mornings. But they’re still coming. There might have been 300 and now there are 60, but that’s still 60 people.
And it turns out that people are coming to lots of other things at the church – study groups, community groups, dinners, events. The church is actually a hive of activity all week.
We seem to be fixated on one single metric: How many people are in worship on a given Sunday.
Not to say that the rapid decline in this number isn’t significant. And not to say that showing up to the monthly community dinner is equivalent to being a fully committed member of the church.
But I believe that, hidden in the interactions the church has with people outside of Sunday morning, and in the connections members of the church have with neighbors, friends, co-workers and strangers, might be clues to how the church will evolve in the future.
We need to explore those connections at a deeper level, and ask how they could provide opportunities to do what the church is really called to do: witness to the liberating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Like the monks of Mepkin Abbey, we have something precious to share for which people are desperately hungry. The future could be right under our noses – if we have the faith and imagination to follow the clues.