“Then Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘You aren’t also leaving, are you?’” Following him was challenging, to say the least. Accepting the truth of his identity was much harder. Folks who had come for the free lunch headed for the exits when the Jesus path got steep.
As the fair-weather disciples melt back into the faceless crowds, Jesus looks at his core group and wonders if we’re up for the challenge. “You aren’t leaving also, are you?”
These days (August of 2021 in the United States), the question is a bit different. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” Churchgoers have been away from public worship and other activities for over a year and a half. Now some of us are beginning to return – however halting that return might be. But many of us are not.
A few months ago, as many as three out of four previous worshipers indicated that they would return to public worship as Covid-tide came to an end. At this point, the actual ratio is more like one in four. Church and denominational leaders wonder frantically, “You are coming back, aren’t you?”
The trend of decreasing worship attendance is not news. The percentage of the American population engaged in regular worship attendance has dropped from around seventy percent at the turn of this century to under fifty percent according to a recent Gallup poll.
“The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference,” writes Jeffrey Jones for the Gallup organization. Even those who express a religious preference are now less likely than twenty years ago to be part of an organized religious institution.
One in five Americans is now a “None,” one who has no connection or allegiance to a religious organization. The Nones are now the largest religious preference group in the United States, according to the pollsters.
Some of the increase in this group is tied to generational change. Younger people are less likely to be part of a religious body than older folks. However, the percentage of older folks with no religious preference has increased more rapidly than the growth of that population cohort overall.
It’s not that some religious groups are growing while others are declining. That was an historical blip in the 1990s that has not held true long-term. Nor is this is a White, middle-class event, although religious involvement among “demographic subgroups” has not declined quite as much as it has among White people.
As a result, thousands of Christian congregations close each year. In large part those closing congregations are in the “middle” in terms of size and available resources.
These trends pre-date the Covid-19 pandemic, but the outbreak and associated measures have accelerated at least some of these trends. Digital worship, study, and meetings mitigated that effect. But one side effect of becoming “podrishioners” is that this has become the preferred means of participation for a number of folks – me included.
“You are coming back, aren’t you?” Well, I’m not sure yet. Here’s an image that makes sense to me.
We have a variety of blooming plants in our backyard, both flowers and vegetables. This year the native bees have worked overtime to facilitate good pollination as they fed on numerous nectar sources. I see them in the giant blossoms on the zucchini and pumpkin vines. They bounce from flower to flower among the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons.
The bees are busy with the coleus and cone flowers, the penstemon and sneeze weed, the hyssop and black-eyed susans and goldenrod. They move to the butterfly bushes, zinnias, and daffodils. From one blossom to another they flit, getting what they need from each – making a commitment to no particular plant or bed or species.
That’s how I feel about worship attendance at this point. I take in anywhere from two to five online services a Sunday. Some are ELCA, some are not. I can be certain to find the Eucharist as part of at least one of those services each week. I get the standard lectionary in some places, the narrative lectionary in others, a summer series in a third, a month-long focus in a fourth, and whatever the Spirit might dictate in a fifth.
I’m unusual, certainly, both in taking in so many services and in my attention to the study of the lectionary texts. Those who follow my blog know this. I feel closer to Jesus, more fed by the Word of God, and more deeply immersed in the texts themselves than at any time since I was a seminarian.
I like it a lot. I’m not joining the ranks of the Nones. I’m not leaving Jesus.
“So, you are coming back, right?” I never left Jesus. In-person worship and all that other stuff – I’m not so sure. And that’s the problem.
If there’s anything that’s clear about the Bread of Life Discourse, it’s that “flesh” is indispensable. The Incarnation is not a metaphor, nor is it an option. I cannot have an authentic relationship with Jesus and be estranged from his Body.
“Jesus as the Bread of Life cannot be understood as merely metaphor,” Karoline Lewis writes, “but rather as a literal revelation of who Jesus is and what abundant life entails…This promise,” Lewis continues, “hinges on John’s central theological claim of the incarnation. If the incarnation is only euphemistic imagination, then it defies its own logic,” she argues, “To stake an entire theology and Christology on God becoming human requires,” she concludes, “that at every turn the incarnation is completely present” (page 84).
This is one of the dangers of my current Bumble Bee spirituality. It’s a boutique experience where I can pick and choose what I want – like any right-thinking, individualist, neo-liberal, late-capitalist consumer. All the while I can imagine that I’m exercising some sort of freedom simply because I’m “choosing.”
In a trivial sense, the bumble bee is also choosing. But that choosing looks a lot like random bouncing from one blossom to another. I may be able to eat, but am I really being fed?
“When they heard [his words], therefore, many of his disciples said, ‘This word is hard; who shall be able to hear it?’ But, Jesus, because he knew in himself that his disciples were grumbling concerning this, said to them, ‘This scandalizes you, doesn’t it?’” (John 6:60-61, my translation).
Yes, this Incarnational Imperative is hard. I find myself growing rigid in my resistance to it. This imperative trips me up over and over. I begin to get comfortable with my bouncy buzzing from blossom to blossom. Then Jesus reminds me that random snacking will not lead me to the Authentic Bread of Life.
That authentic nourishment happens in community, or not at all. Let me clarify. That’s not a requirement, a quid pro quo. It’s not that I pay for my meal by showing up for worship. This is not a “sermon, then soup” sort of system. It’s not a requirement. It’s simply a description of Reality.
“So, you are coming back, right?” Yes, at some point and in some fashion, I am. Well, sort of. There is no coming “back.” I am certain that the only congregations that will survive in the long run are those that go forward.
I won’t be returning to congregations, for example, that have found hybrid (in-person and digital) worship a necessary evil, to be abandoned as soon as practical. We church folks have discovered things about meeting people in their living rooms and bathrobes that we should not soon forget.
I won’t be going back to congregations that are primarily social societies and potluck parties. If the writer of John makes anything clear, it’s that intimacy matters in the Body of Christ. But that sort of intimacy is not mere familiarity, length of tenure, and association. We church folks need to remember that the Incarnation is about authentic relationships of vulnerability, challenge, self-giving, and hope.
I won’t be going back to congregations that depend on white supremacy and privilege to sustain themselves. If talking about Black Lives Matter and the dangers of American exceptionalism creates problems in a congregation, such a place won’t benefit from my presence. If full equality for people of all identities is not a given in a congregation, then I’ll just be more trouble than I’m worth.
I won’t be going back to a congregation that leaves me the same as when I came in. My presumptions and prejudices, my blind spots and bullheadedness, my racism and sexism and classism, my anxiety and arrogance need a community brave enough and strong enough to call me to new living every day.
This encounter with the God who changes everything creates a “crisis,” to use the language of John – a moment of decision, of judgment. “Given the setting of the feeding of the five thousand and the provision of food and water by God for the Israelites in the wilderness,” Lewis writes, “critical is how God’s people respond to God’s desire for relationship. For the Fourth Gospel, encountering God in the Word made flesh, Jesus, is a crisis moment” (page 102).
The problems we face in the White American churches are much worse than we are being led to believe. Technical fixes won’t do the job. Reorganization won’t do the job. Reshuffling the deck chairs on the denominational Titanic won’t do the job. And the people who point out that nothing less than white repentance and reparation must precede reconciliation and renewal end up on the outside looking in.
So, the end of the Bread of Life Discourse is a tract for our time. Just when we thought we might get out of this Discourse with a happy ending, things go from bad to worse. Peter speaks, he thinks, for the Twelve: “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69, my translation).
“So, you are coming back, right?” Yes, I am. It’s hard. But where else could I go?