Monday, December 5, 2022

The Job of a Prophet


Matthew 3:1-12

Advent 2 / Year A

Welcome to St. Paul’s on this Second Sunday of Advent.  You may be interested to know on this Sunday in 1962, St. Paul’s had three regular services: 8:00 Eucharist, 9:30 Morning Prayer, and 11:00 Morning Prayer.  You also may be interested to know total attendance on that Sunday 60 years ago was 199 Christian souls.  Today, we will have somewhere in the area of 25% of that congregation.  Some things change…

…and some don’t.  That Sunday, as today, the faithful encounter John the Baptist and the prophets.  This morning’s collect hints at what their ministry is all about.  They preach repentance and call us to prepare the way for our salvation.  Prophets like John have a two-fold task.  First, he is required to speak the truth.  And second, he called to point the way. 

Speaking the truth.  Here is a truth on my mind today.  The Christian Church is in serious decline in our country – across the board.  We are catching up to what has been happening in Europe for a long time.  A report this week indicates less than 50% of the people in England now identify as Christian.  Over a third state they have no religious affiliation, and their numbers are growing.  It isn’t much better on this side of the Atlantic.

Stephen Bullivant, a 38-year-old British sociologist, has written a new book titled “Nonverts: The Making of Ex-Christian America.”  The opposite of a convert, a nonvert is a person raised in a religious tradition who walks away from it.  Up until the early 90’s, about 7% of our country had no religious affiliation.  This percentage has grown steadily and dramatically over the last three decades.  Today over one in three people state ‘None’ when asked about church membership.  Bullivant has some theories about what is driving this change.

Noting this trend began in the early 90’s, he sees this movement has a backlash against the rise of the Religious Right in American politics and life.  He notes before the end of the Cold War, our greatest fear was godless Communism.  People with doubts tended to keep them to themselves.  Soon after Communism fell, our biggest fear transitioned from godless people to people with too much religion, both at home and abroad.

The internet also has contributed to the decline of religious involvement.  Bullivant notes it has allowed like-minded people from all over the world to connect and share ideas.  So, even if you live in a deeply religious community, you can find others who share your doubts and grievances about the faith.  

A final factor Bullivant identifies is what he calls the herd mentality.  We tend to do what our neighbors do, so as more people stop going to church, more people will opt out with them.  Add to this we are still in the backwash of the pandemic and have yet to be able to access its impact on religious communities and organizations, but so far it looks bleak.

My own family reflects what is happening in American life.  My grandparents and my parents (and their siblings) were staunch Presbyterians.  I grew up in an era when churches gave out medals to youngsters for perfect attendance in Sunday School (more of us received this yearly reward than did not).  My sisters and I are each active in a church, but none of us are Presbyterians.  We each raised our children in a church, but none, now adults, participate in organized religion.  None of my sisters’ grandchildren have been baptized and most likely will not grow up being raised in a religious community.  I suspect most of us here, if we traced our family’s religious history, would have a similar story. 

Some people have stepped away from institutional religion because they disagree with a controversial stance taken by a denomination.  Individual congregations have lost members as a result of poor leadership or misconduct.  But if Bullivant is correct, the most significant factors driving the explosion of nonverts are cultural forces beyond our control.  Are there things we as a congregation or as a denomination we need to repent?  Of course.  But the reasons why today’s attendance pales to what it was in 1962 lie primarily outside our walls. 

The prophetic truth I speak is painful and deeply concerning to all of us who value a connection to the Holy One fed primarily through a church like ours, but allow me to take up the other prophetic mantle – pointing the way.  What in the world are we supposed to do to swim against the furious current of our culture’s trend toward anti-religious engagement?

Well, perhaps Stephen Bullivant gives us a clue through his own personal story.  He never went to a church as a child, but managed to meet some Dominicans when he was in college.  He developed friendships with some and they invited him to join them for dinner at their abbey.  There was one catch, he had to attend a mass before the meal.  Because the food was good, the wine was plentiful, and the conversation was interesting, Sunday evening worship became a regular feature of his week.  He grew to enjoy the service as he became more comfortable with it and was moved by its rhythms and cadences.  He was impressed by the people he met because they were bright and kind and lived out what they believed in a way which was life-giving and never critical.  After some time, his friends encouraged Stephen to be baptized, and he consented.  Now married, he and his wife are raising their four children in the church.

The way forward in these lean times, it seems to me, is to be who we are and to do what we do as a people seeking to be faithful to God, caring of one another, and connected to our community.  We are a welcoming place.  Perhaps we could do more to invite people to join us for worship or an event or to be a part of an outreach effort.  But there is something fundamentally good and holy and beautiful about our parish – something people hunger for even if the culture doesn’t encourage them to find it in a faith community.

I suspect none of us here this morning will be here on the Second Sunday of Advent in 2082, maybe one or two of our children.  I don’t know if here will even be here.  But I have confidence St. Paul’s, Suffolk will endure in some form or fashion and those things which matter most to us will be evident on that day… by and through the grace of God and our faithfulness in our own day.