The Doors of the Church are Open —by Jinny Batterson
During my childhood and adolescence, I attended Sunday school. As a young adult, I took a multi-year sabbatical from organized religion, then resumed attending a small congregation—a chance to sing in the choir, I told myself. I liked being an alto. For the past several years, I’ve attended two different congregations. One is mostly white, generally affluent, with a mix of children and adults, trending toward the older end of the age continuum. The other is mostly black, less affluent, with a similar age distribution. The Unitarian-Universalist congregation has slightly more college professors than the African Methodist Episcopal congregation; A.M.E. worshippers include slightly more former college football players and basketball stars. Both groups have several hundred members on their rolls, some of whom show up most Sundays. As older members die off, our numbers dwindle.
The fastest growing religious segment of the overall American population are the “unchurched.” A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 Americans found that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians had dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% just seven years later. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%.
Many younger adults have little use for Sunday worship. Partly, this is because Sunday morning can be the only unscheduled interval in their increasingly busy lives. Another partial answer may lie in incidents of mass violence, like a 2008 shooting at a UU worship service near Knoxville, Tennessee or the 2015 assault on an evening prayer service at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. These two horrendous incidents are part of a series of mass shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples that can badly damage our sense of safety. The congregations I attend have trained our ushers to be alert to potential violence, defusing it if at all possible, otherwise sounding the alarm and limiting the damage.
In both congregations I attend, we wrestle with questions of how to affirm each other’s dignity, how to forgive each other and ourselves, how to help each other grow spiritually. Both congregations also grapple with hateful rhetoric coming from the highest levels of our government. The U.S. constitution forbids church statements in support of or opposition to specific political figures or groups. However, we allow support of or opposition to specific policies and behaviors. Right now, churches are often centers of opposition to inhumane treatment of immigrants or “others.”
Despite many similarities, both of the congregations I attend feel incomplete to me. I wonder if it’s partly because they continue to reflect a situation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in a 1960 speech: eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning is among the most segregated hours in Christian America. In a religion whose basic tenets include “love one another,” such segregation of “white” and “black” (or any other group identity) is hypocritical at best. Is how poorly we walk our talk one important explanation of formal Christianity’s dwindling numbers?
Given its recent decline, it’s tempting to conclude that Christianity, even religion more generally, may not survive in 21st century America. I think it can both survive and thrive, but rejuvenating our faiths will take a lot more than one older woman crossing a racial divide to attend two churches.
After both the Knoxville and the Charleston incidents, church leaders reassured and challenged us: whatever losses we’d suffered, “the doors of the church are still open.” Often I imagine church doors as fully hinged swinging doors—capable of swinging out as well as in, like the doors sometimes found between restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, or fronting saloons in old cowboy movies.
Many church activities have little doctrine associated with them. They can happen outside the confines of church buildings. They’re not limited to a single day per week. They are just something we can do as Christians, as humans—social outreach, social justice, social uplift. Our faith encourages us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, comfort the bereaved.
From what I know of church history, the earliest Christians had no special buildings, very little liturgy, no delineated creeds. They just wanted to share the love of God with their fellow humans and with the rest of creation. Such sharing is not limited to Sunday mornings. It recognizes no artificial boundaries. The “doors of the church” in each one of us need to swing both ways. Maybe then the doors of our various denominations will be easier to keep open.