In 2002, my husband and I moved to Pawnee Rock and began pastoring a small, rural congregation. On good mornings we boasted an attendance of 40. But lingering in the congregational memory was yet the golden age of the congregation, when the sanctuary was full to overflowing and the church was active and vital. Today, my husband pastors in another setting and I continue to work with my church, but at 60% time. On Sunday mornings we feel good when 20 of us gather for worship in a small, close-knit circle in our air conditioned basement. This is one of the faces of rural depopulation.
Bergthal Mennonite hasn't experienced a church split in generations. Nor has a small faction broken away in the last half century. Our decline has simply reflected the broader environment's relentless hemorrhage of people. Or is it so simple? Most mainline denominational churches, both rural and urban, are also noting a steady erosion in membership and attendance. At a recent conference, a seminary instructor noted that even mega churches are starting to decline in popularity. What's going on here?
Because our community at Bergthal has been whittled down to so few, we have needed to begin talking in earnest about what it means to be church. The institutional model of church is something we will not be able to sustain for much longer. But perhaps moving away from the institutional structure will breathe new life into the ideal.
I've been on a quest this last year to distill the essence of church. Anne Lamott writes, "I go to church not because it gives me some hotline to Truth, but because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home."
In her book, "Leaving Church", theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church's job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?"
Maybe the most profound understanding of church is nestled in the familiar children's Sunday School song, "The church is not a building, the church is a people!"
If the essence of church is simply about relationships, our relationships with each other and with God and giving witness to those relationships through our lives, is it then possible to strip away some of the tradition time has laquered on in smothering layers? Does church necessarily mean meeting in a certain building, on a certain day, at a certain time? Does church require a set order of worship or liturgy? Must church be structured around councils and committees?
Why are increasing numbers of people finding church irrelevant and meaningless? I don't believe it's because we have fewer faithful people out there, but because we have allowed tradition to shape our understanding of church and this has slowly bled the vitality and creative life out of much of the institution.
God is so much bigger than our notions of church and the Holy Spirit cannot be contained. The church will carry on, but we may need to be prepared to sacrifice some of our beloved traditions in order to keep up with God.