Monday, August 08, 2005

Contrarian View From the Pew: That was then, this is now.

I was fortunate enough to be a member of a Church ten years ago where I had the privilege of knowing a man who grew up in Iowa in the 1920’s. My wife and I were both part of the single group at this Church then. The Church usually had around 1000 people attend two Sunday morning services at this time. It also had a Sunday evening service that attracted less than 100 people. Almost all of the Sunday evening attendees were retired or single.

The vibrancy of this man who grew up in Iowa masked his older age. He passed away several years ago, but looking back now, it is clear that he spent his final years on earth preparing for heaven by witnessing to almost anyone who would listen, and he did have lots of listeners. During one of our conversations, he expressed sadness about how few people attended the Sunday evening service. He told me that when he was growing up, he would spend all week working on his family’s farm, and then on Sunday, he would spend all day, not just an hour or two, at Church.

He said the Sunday morning service would include at least a dozen hymns and two hours of preaching. After the morning service, the entire Church would eat lunch together and then the children would play, the women would fellowship, and most of the men would take a nap. The afternoon activities were followed by an early evening service with more singing, and more preaching, and more fellowship, and then everyone would return to their farms where they would rarely see each other again until the following Sunday. His Sunday at Church was the most important part of his week as he got to worship God and fellowship with other believers.

Everyone didn’t live on a farm in 1920, but most people did live a life that included much less interaction with others than we do today. Factory workers and farmers worked in labor intensive occupations, merchants had many less customers than now, and most of the wives raised children and performed manual housework without modern appliances. Therefore, Sunday mornings weren’t just a time for God; Sunday’s were also a time for socializing. The Church was where most of the actual relating took place for everyone in a typical American community.

Nowadays, most working people are relating from the time they get up until the time they go to bed at night. Many, if not most, of us work on projects with dozens of other people in office complexes of hundreds of other people. There are as many women as men in the workforce now. Even in software development, a good part of every week is spent in meetings and discussions with our co-workers. Outside of work, we have contact with the parents of the children who are in activities with our children, from soccer, to softball, to swimming, to gymnastics, to dancing, to singing, to talent shows, to scouting, to who knows what’s next! We shop in Super Markets with lines longer than all of the customers of a store in 1920.

By the time Sunday roles around, some of us, mostly men, have had about as much relating as we can stand for the week. It’s no wonder the Sunday evening service is a sliver of what it once was. It won’t surprise me to see the Sunday morning service also experience more decline as well since Pastors continue to over-emphasize relationships in the typical Church ministry plan.


Jennifer said...

I can only speak for myself and what is going on in my own church: I am not a "relational" kind of person. I have to play that game all week long, and the last thing I want to do on the weekend is play it again at church. Thank God we have a pastor who insists that our community of faith learns to "do life together". When I started going to small group a year ago, I hated it! Our pastor emphasized that this was not a Bible study, but a small group of people spending life together. That means several hours talking about our kids, golf, yardwork, football, jobs, basketball, caving, and whatever else we want to discuss. I was very puzzled and uncomfortable for a long time, and I just wanted a Bible study. It has literally taken me a year to figure out that this group is like a small family to me, and I am family to them. We love each other and would do anything for each other. We've connected in a way that we never would have if it was just "Bible study." The church as a whole displays this on a larger scale. Last week a couple in our church found out they would be adopting two children, who would be arriving in 3 days...not a single one of their needs went unmet - because we have a relationship with them, not just because they attend our church. The Back to School Carnival we are holding to distribute free school supplies to the poor kids in town is about building relationships within the community, so they know how much we care about them. Do you honestly think the original disciples just attended church together and didn't have any kind of relationship? Again, I repeat something I said before: the whole point of Jesus coming to earth was to teach us how to relate to one another, and the whole he reason he went to the cross was so we could relate to the Father.

Jennifer said...

I also would point out that the fact that our lives are so busy doesn't mean we have relationships. I would submit that the opposite is true. Yes, our children are busy with sports and so on, but how often do you see a group of neighborhood kids just "playing" together? Not often. Most people don't even know their neighbors anymore. We have become a closed society. What we need, David, is more RELATIONSHIPS.

Hammertime said...

"the whole point of Jesus coming to earth was to teach us how to relate to one another"

I couldn't disagree more.

Dig through the OT and you'll find little that Jesus taught that hadn't already been revealed. Certainly we can recognize that the greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors were - but so were the works of compassion and respect for others, even and especially strangers.

I will agree that the Gospels put all of this in a concise way, and would also agree that there were many instances where Jesus taught us a truth in a way that made it fresh, easy to understand, and real to us. In that regard, I agree that he taught us to relate to each other - but the truth of how that was to be was always the same.

David, you have quite an insight here. I think that the answer maynot be more relationships, but integrated ones that reach beyond Sunday. If I could relate with my brothers and sisters in Christ through the week, I would (and am working on it). Perhaps that is why Jennifer has found a connection in a small group - it is relating during life, not aside from it.

Great post, and food for thought. I disagree with the Sunday morning premise, because we gather for more than fellowship - we gather for worship and discipleship as well.

Teresa said...

OK, I finally see what you are saying David and I'm at least not confused anymore! Yeah! And I totally get that, that is why we have to take those things into account when speaking to unbeleivers..., I have neighbors who feel the same way. I have to agree though with Jennifer and beleive it or not--Hammer. I would say you have a relationship with all of the people you mentioned, but it is only a surface relationship--can you call those people when in a jam, as Jennifer mentioned? Jennifer said that it was hard--sure it is, but it is SO important! Jesus said it was important too--look it up. And I think that if you read more about "those days" you would see that even though those people were distanced, they were there for one-another and involved in one-anothers live, haven't you ever watched Little House on the Prarie LOL, OK, that's a little futher back, but the same none the less.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Hammer,

One of my points is that we should gather for more than fellowship on Sunday morning, but if the present trend continues, we might not being doing anything other than relating at Church since so many Pastors and followers are becoming obsessed with relationships. I’m guessing it is not as bad in the rest of the Country as it is in California, but trends do have a way of spreading beyond California.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Teresa,

I think you make a very good point that I should have included in my post. Even though farmers didn’t spend all week relating to each other, they were almost always available to help each other if and when help was needed. I know they had their feuds and their problems too, but the point is that we don’t need to be obsessed with relationships in order to have a good community and be good neighbors.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Jennifer,

It seems like you might still be misunderstanding me a little. I agree with you that all of us need relationships. I also think that people who are not inclined to relate, maybe like you and me, should make more of an effort to relate. That’s not what I’m writing about though.

My point is that Church, perhaps more in California than the rest of the Country, has been over-emphasizing relationships at the cost of not giving the other aspects of Christianity the proper emphasis. If the only thing preachers talked about was the Bible, I would probably claim the Bible is being over-emphasized. I wouldn’t claim the Bible should not be studied, just that studying the Bible is not all there is to the Christian life.

David M. Smith said...

Hi Again Jennifer,

I think some people need more relationships and some people need less relationships and some people have the right amount of relationships. However, I have no way of knowing what is right for anyone else. I’m not even sure what the right number is for myself.

I am certain though, that none of us have the ability to have an unlimited number of relationships. For most people, forming and nurturing a new relationship when they are already busy to the max requires them to spend less time with their current friends. I also know that the larger a group gets, the less intimate it gets. I also know there are many people who are never satisfied with most of their relationships because they are always getting their feelings hurt.

Perhaps if Churches weren’t so obsessed with relationships there would be a lot more contentment in our Churches and a lot less hurt.