Ever emptier pews

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Odds are pretty good that you didn’t attend church today. Or synagogue yesterday or mosque on Friday. You’re in Maine, and Maine is the least churched state in America.

With Christmas season upon us, a few more will attend Christmas Eve services, but the empty pews will still yawn silently through the carols.

Church activity is falling across the country. At the annual meeting of Maine UCC churches, we learned that membership has fallen to 15,000. In 2006, it was 22,000. Catholics and mainstream Protestants are joined now by conservative Christians, who are losing followers after having gained adherents for decades. Jewish congregations may have been watching the faithful slip away even longer. And, on Nov. 12, Beth Abraham Synagogue in Auburn was deconsecrated. Its 15 members will attend Temple Shalom.

I’m afraid this is more than just old fahts dying off.

Teeth have gnashed, hands have wrung for years over this decline. You can hear all sorts of explanations. People are too busy on worship day. True, but not convincing. I’m busy, too, but I get to worship. Or, many people don’t believe in God. More than before, true, but polls show about five in six say they believe in God, only they don’t take their belief to worship. Or, folks say they’re spiritual but not religious. That’s a copout.

Here are four currents I believe may be contributing to the falloff in worship. I make no pretense to try to explain all of it, but just to put out some of what I have observed.

The first is in the holy books of Christianity and Judaism. Rewriters have tried to make the Bible sound more modern by, for example, replacing “thee” and “thou” with “you.”

But thou is not the problem. The problem with the writing in the Bible is its density. A chapter might begin with, say, David referring to another person, then the second person referring to a third. Then David refers to the third person, but we are told only that David referred to “him.” Then the second person refers to “him,” and the head starts to spin. I sometimes marvel that any kid ever comes out of Sunday school as a believer.

All those “hims” suggest a second scriptural problem. As the Bible has been rewritten and reissued over the years, it seems that it became evermore about men. Yeah, women get two books, Esther and Ruth, but for the most part, women are appendages of men. That may have been more or less the case in biblical times, but look around you in 2017.

Scholars are uncovering evidence that Jesus moved in a world that wasn’t all men. Some see Mary Magdalene as the 13th apostle. Jesus’s mother, Mary, was close to his ministry, too. Some scholars argue that women were prominent in biblical times but were written out of later versions. In any case, women are insufficiently present and prominent in current editions. Were I a woman, I might well ask, “Hey, what about us?”

A third current in using the Bible might be traced to our down-sliding education system. Since the ’60s, educationists have bent over backward to be “relevant.” No more Latin, certainly downplay history because it’s about people who aren’t alive now. Forget about civics. No one except politicians cares about how government works.

Transfer that mania for “relevance” to religion. God or prophets or Jesus often speak of planting trees and patiently waiting for them to bear fruit, of raising animals to kill for food or homage, of tending gardens. How many Americans do that? Barely one percent of Americans farm. Farm metaphors may be lost on today’s readers. “What does that mean for me?” Could it be that the word, as we Christians see it, reaches those who scratch in the dirt for a living but not those who scratch out messages on a keyboard for a living?

Folks predisposed to disdain religion find plenty of fodder in the Bible. It seems to have been written as a guide to living for the upper and upper-middle classes. It speaks often of slaves. The people who take “thou” out of the Bible frequently change “slave” to “servant.” But the cynic won’t be fooled, nor will others who really do believe. The Bible clearly teaches us how to treat our slaves. Make that servants.

The application of scripture causes as many problems as the words themselves. And this may be the biggie. We were privileged a few years ago to hear seminars conducted by John Dominic Crossan, a Catholic theologian at DePaul University. My takeaway was that we Christians have spent way too many centuries worrying about the sexual behavior of ourselves and others.

Sex matters. But the times they have a-chang-ed. Dr. John Rock, a Catholic and a gynecologist, perfected the birth control pill in 1960, and the pill swept away the taboos on sexual activity, taboos that reinforced or emphasized the teaching of most Christian denominations. Yet some churches continue to preach abstinence except to make babies.

Far more people are being harmed today by violence in Syria, Myanmar, Yemen than in the shopping malls of Alabama or the no-tell-motels in America’s strip malls. Should religious people serve God and mankind by directing their energy away from who is in whose bed with whom and toward who is at whose throat?

We can argue all day about who inspired and who wrote the pages of the Bible. I will suggest, though, that we find ways to relate the Bible stories to how folks live today. I farmed for 30 years. I know about putting seeds into the ground, about waiting and nurturing the beast to get it ready for the table. But how do we relate those activities, and the morals of those stories, to folks who heat stew-in-a-bag for supper? A friend in Connecticut, who with her husband pastored a mega-church west of Hartford, told me, “The word is eternal. We have to find new words every week to keep telling the story.”

Bob Neal was a delegate to the annual meeting of the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ. As a former editor, he reads everything, including the Bible, as if he still had an editing pencil in his hand.

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