Recently a matriarch in the St. Louis United Church of Christ (UCC) church died and seeing her picture sent my mind back in a pool of forgotten memories.
Gloria McNamara was an active member of the UCC Minister’s Wives group that met at the church where I was then serving. This group of women began meeting back when their husbands pastored UCC churches throughout the St. Louis community, most were now retired and many widows. Educated and wise, I was privileged to chat with them before and after their book studies and I learned much under their tutelage. Some of the messages were explicit, some not so much, always a significant source for my understanding of the strange ground that is (or was) UCC in St. Louis. Hailing from the north (seminary in the Twin Cities, first churches in Michigan), I was completely lost in the Eden-German-ethnic ethos in which I found myself in St. Louis’ iteration of the UCC. These women were a lifeline.
Remembering these women, I found myself re-remembering where they went. The group folded up several years before I left church work. Several had died, others became too frail to gather, and few new members came. The story of this group was a piece of larger story. As I began to remember, I found myself looking at another piece of why I left the church and when. Short story: the church is dying. And it was grievously painful to bear witness on the daily.
The UCC, where I am still on the rolls, was 2+ million members strong when I was born in 1962. By the time I was ordained in 1989, membership had slipped to 1.6+ million. When I came to St. Louis in 1996 there were 1.45+ million, but the number dipped >1 million by the time I retired in 2013. Today there are less than 880,000 members. As important as the numbers is the trend. While the church was losing about 14,000 members a year in my childhood, the number jumped to 28,000 a year during the 23 years while I was in ministry and continues to climb (now more than 30,000 a year). At current rates there will be 0 members in just 29 years. Already there are important talks about not only restructuring (read: continual downsizing) but also strategic alliances (read: mergers). Importantly there are bold new prophetic initiatives that will help many local communities, but historically these initiatives have not had been able to quell the exodus.
While the UCC may be a leader in this demographic shift, it is important to note that church numbers of all kinds is waning in this country. While a relatively small slice of highly churched Americans have taken over every branch of our government (and we should be very wary, very), the people of this nation are walking away from active participation in almost every flavor of organized religion. Importantly the verbose “christian” politicians have kept the most inflammatory of church rhetoric but even they are rarely actively engaged in the day to day life of making church happen.
For the last several years of my work in church I unwittingly chose to remain fairly cloistered in the local church. Toward the end, when the writing was on the wall denominationally and the local church was in need of significant capital investment, I found myself soul searching and in deep prayer about next steps for the church that I loved. Actively working on marketing (called everything but), I was increasingly convinced that whatever lay ahead for all that we treasured in church, it would not be held in institutions. What is a sacred and worthy must be identified and lifted as a light on the hill, allowed to be seen and celebrated without benefit of liturgical language or institutional blessing. While some of this work was welcome in the local church, much was not. This tension was a key piece of what I experienced as I felt pushed from the nest.
Last week the Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness for the UCC and local pastor, offered this on Facebook:
Perhaps. The question that begs our attention is not: Why is the church, as we know it, dying?
But rather: What is the Spirit birthing in it’s place?
In the days and weeks (that have become months and now years) since I left the institution, this question has continued to beckon. What is the spirit birthing in it’s place? Importantly Traci invited myself and countless other St. Louisans to pray with our feet in Ferguson and beyond. Face to face with the evil that courses just beneath the surface in our American dream (or nightmare, depending on where you sit), the gospel takes on urgency that I never felt in the safety of the pews. Feet firmly planted, breathing prayer, I bore witness. And I was forever changed.
Today I continue to look for the pieces that we need to save and treasure for the difficult days that lie ahead. For my own self, the stories are precious. I find myself telling the ancient stories with my students, with my friends at dinner, as I sit at the keyboard. The stories gathered in the book we call sacred were in their birthing liberation stories and deserve to be shared as such. But I find that I give myself permission to pick and choose these days, pretty liberally.
In candor, believing Jesus about God, I find myself turning for wisdom to songs that I did not learn in church. I watch for the lessons in the earth, in life’s longing for itself, and am learning to trust this unscripted (and non colonized) voice above the rest. For long after when we humans have gone from this earth, this voice of life’s longing will continue to sing. This song. This song above all songs.
And it is very good.