Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Vacant Pew

In 1965, Pierre Berton wrote a report about the Anglican Church in Canada, later published as The Comfortable Pew, claiming that church goers had become too complacent, too comfortable with the status quo, and they needed to be shaken up.  At the same time, Protestant mainline churches started experiencing a steady decline in North America.  According to Wikipedia, Protestant church membership in the United States peaked at 31 million in 1960, dropped to 25 million in 1988 and to 21 million in 2005.  Similarly weekly attendance at Canadian Protestant churches peaked in the 1950’s at 70%, dropped to 30% in 1975 and plummeted to 20% in 2000.  Churches have definitely been shaken up, but not necessarily in the way Mr. Berton intended.

     Growing up in a Protestant church in Hamilton, Ontario, my family worshipped every Sunday even if we were under the weather.  My Dad would talk to everyone and Mom joked that he should lock up the church every week.  If my siblings and I complained about waiting, Dad would say:  “I went to church three times on Sunday, twice for services and once for Sunday School.  You only go once.” 

     In my parents’ day, the church was the centre of the community where people met for baptisms, banquets, bazaars, Bible studies, socials, confirmations, girl guides & boy scouts meetings, youth group meetings and dances (Methodists).  Spouses met and married in God’s house.  Churches were full of life!

     As newlyweds, my husband Rob and I were seeking a church like the one my parents attended in the Sixties.  Sadly, their church had become a shadow of its former self:  the youth group had folded, confirmation had become a foreign word, the couples club had dwindled and baptisms were rare, although funerals were all too common.  The pews were vacant. 

     Where did everybody go?  Why wasn’t the congregation attracting new ones, or at least keeping the existing ones?  Over time, hockey games and work schedules and household chores have taken precedence over church services on Sunday morning.  I believe that a big reason people have left the church is that it isn’t feeding them spiritually anymore.  If they simply hear that same politically correct message that TV, newspapers, magazines or the workplace bombards them with daily, they might as well stay home.  A church sanctuary should be a sanctum from the outside world.

     As for Rob and I, we moved to a new city and tried another Protestant church.  Although its theology was sound, its population was aging and efforts were minimal to attract new members.  The pews were a bit too comfortable.  When our little boy Thomas was born, he was the only baby in the nursery.  It was time to move on.

     We decided to try the denomination in which my husband was baptized.  The downtown church was vibrant when we arrived, but bit by bit, its pews emptied.  One summer Thomas’ name was the only one on the Vacation Bible School list.  I believe political correctness killed our second church. 

Our third church was Christian Reformed, a denomination that we had no connection to.  Our first Sunday visit five years ago was memorable thanks to the warm welcome we received.  With the sanctuary full, the congregation sang several praise choruses with gusto.  A gentleman led a heartfelt congregational prayer that was not politically correct, but followed God’s word.  The church lacked a fulltime minister at the time and yet it ran like a well-oiled machine.  I said to Rob:  “This is what we’ve been looking for all these years!”  We never looked back.  Thomas and Jacqueline settled into the Sunday School, 75 children strong.   I joined the Alpha Course, Women’s Bible Study, Prayer Team and Praise Team.  Now my children say that I should lock up the church.  

     What’s special about Hope Christian Reformed Church?  People come regularly, not sporadically.  Husbands, not just wives, attend.  Youth, as well as the elderly, attend.  Our church even supports Brantford Christian School where we later enrolled our children, the best decision we ever made.  Although people are talented at Hope, they exhibit a humility I rarely see these days.  When someone needs prayer, we get down on our knees.  When someone needs a job, we find an employer. When someone is seriously ill, we prepare meals for him.  Servant leadership is not just a theory but a reality there.  At Hope, the pews are neither comfortable, nor vacant, but full of the Holy Spirit.  Our Redeemer lives!

 Photo of Hope Christian Reformed Church courtesy

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