I know this is going to sound harsher than I mean it but, believe me, this is more a lament than a rant.
I often hear worried words and see much hand-wringing over the fact that “young people” are not going to church anymore. That is usually connected to the worry about the “unchurched” and I’m sure it comes up often in evangelism or outreach committees. We worry and we cast our anxious looks around at empty pews, but I’m not sure we really believe what we say; or if we do believe it, our actions don’t bear out our confession.
Let me put it this way: if we were really worried about youth and unbelievers, what are the sorts of things we would do? Do we want them to go to church on Sunday to hear God’s Word and receive His gifts, and not just as an obligation or as a burden of the Law (there is that pesky Third Commandment)? What would show that? Maybe going to the Lord’s House on the Lord’s Day and whenever else the services of the Lord’s House are held? Not just when we don’t have anything else going on, but every single week (barring sickness or death). We would make it clear from the very beginning of their baptismal life that the Lord’s House is where the Lord’s people are found on the Lord’s Day. Full stop. Yes, you can play sports; yes, you can have friends over. But believe this: those things, and all things, will give way to the Word of God given to us for our forgiveness and edification.
If not, the exception swiftly becomes the rule. In fact, it takes about three generations, as far as I can tell. The first generation attends the Divine Service weekly, even if they are farmers and it’s a nice day for plowing or spraying the fields. There are no exceptions to this, or if there are, they come about once every ten years. That’s just how it is. The second generation learned this from their parents, and by mere force of habit they follow this pattern–pretty much. But maybe they’re not so happy with some pastor or the way the service always stays the same. So even though they go every week, or at least twice a month, their children hear them complain about various aspects of church. Their children also see them become a little more lax about when they go, and when they make their children go. Because they want their children to go “for the right reasons, not because they have to, like I did.” The problem is that the little sinners often don’t want to go. They’d rather travel with their sports team or stay overnight with their non-church-going friend on Saturday night. And the parents find themselves, in spite of their better desires, not wanting to “deprive” their children of those experiences. And, anyway, what does it hurt not to go to church every single Sunday? I mean, it’s not like going to church makes you a Christian, or that everyone who goes to church is a Christian. Sure, they want their children to be Christians and to go to church–at least, they know they’re supposed to want that–and they still want them to do their confirmation homework and go to Sunday School (though they drop them off and don’t go to Bible study). Finally, their children learn their lessons better than their parents teach it: church is something we should do, probably, but it’s not something absolutely necessary, so if we have “better” things to do, we will do them. And we’ll still put in our appearances once a month or so. We’re still Christians, because we say we believe in God (though we’re not quite sure who that God is, or how he/she/it is different from the Muslim’s or the Jew’s or the Mormon’s god), and we believe that Jesus died for our sins (though we’re not quite sure why we need that, or what it means to believe it).
So we come to the third generation, the members of which know that their parents think going to church is important, and their grandparents thought it was really important, but have a lot of trouble coming up with even one good reason why it’s important for them (except, maybe, when they have children, and the pressure from the parents becomes a little more intense, especially about baptism). And they essentially, and consciously, don’t think being in the Lord’s House is any more important than the atheist down the street thinks it is. (Of course, they don’t really know any atheists, because in small, rural communities everyone is a member of some church. Right? Aren’t they? Well, they were baptized there, at least.) And when they do come to the Divine Service, they find it irrelevant and boring. Which is sort of like saying it’s irrelevant and boring to weed your garden when the weeds have already killed off all the flowers and vegetables.
Sort of bleak, isn’t it? But the quicker we realize that this is our situation in at least the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the better off we’ll be. As Charlie Peacock put it in a song, “Cheer up Church/you’re worse off than you think.”
Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of parents (despite what they say) with their children for 20 or 30 years has been teaching them that what happens on the Lord’s Day is unimportant, irrelevant, boring, and unrealistic. Why are we surprised when they believe it? And then, once we’ve thoroughly inculcated in them this apathy toward the liturgy, we complain that it’s not meeting their needs and we need to do something else. So maybe the Baby Boomers got their way after all, not by actively teaching the destruction of the liturgy, but by the inertia of the sinful nature.
I’d like to offer some possibilities toward a solution to this problem and how we might recover the beauty and the pure Gospel power of the liturgy, even without proficient cantors and choirs and instrumentalists, even in a rural congregation, but I’m beginning to think, even as I write this, that that’s just not what people want. They don’t want to discover the depths of the catholic Divine Service, as it’s been handed down and refined through the centuries. They’ve already convinced themselves that the liturgy, along with the strong, orthodox hymns, have outlived their usefulness. So then: damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead (into faddishness–which will certainly mean irrelevance, not after 2000 years, but as quickly as worship innovators sense any new, cutting-edge entertainment to engage the cynical and jaded “youth”)!
But if you’re interested….hold on….