Listening to the stories

Came across an article today by Sarah Hinlicky
which is an essay about why young people don’t come to church, and about what the church can do to rectify this. It is well written and resonates strongly with my own past as well as what I see in my own children.

She writes:
“We know you’ve tried to get us to church. That’s part of the problem. Many of your appeals have been carefully calculated for success, and that turns our collective stomach. Take worship, for instance. You may think that fashionable cutting-edge liturgies relate to us on our level, but the fact is, we can find better entertainment elsewhere. The same goes for anything else you term ‘contemporary’. We see right through it: it’s up-to-date for the sake of being up-to-date, and we’re not impressed by the results…”

When I was a student I did an attachment with a big evangelical city-centre church full of young people. Young good-looking people too. They had 3 services each Sunday: one at 8am which was traditional Prayer Book with trad hymns; one at 11am which was full of young parents and 4 levels of Sunday School and lots of jolly modern choruses and an occasional trad hymn; and the evening service which catered mostly for students and singing was accompanied by the overhead projector so that one’s hands were free to drift heavenwards. Preaching focussed highly on the agenda (sometimes lasting 45 minutes) and was slick and scary at the same time.

However the priest did say to me that the growing congregation was the early morning one and he felt that some of the congregation were starting to look for the ‘numinous’ in worship and liked coming to the High Altar for communion. But the main service was the one which catered for children so many who would like to ‘move on’ were stuck doing what was best for their kids.

The article goes on:
“On the other hand, you shouldn’t be excessively medieval and mysterious, either. Mystery works up to a point, but it’s addictive, and once we get hooked on it, the Church won’t be able to provide enough to support out habit. We’ll turn instead (many of us already have) to Eastern gurus and ancient pagan pantheons to satisfy all the esoteric delights our souls might desire…”

I can vouch for that. It was after a period of exploring many New Age spiritualities which were indeed addictive (and expensive!)that I finally came around to the idea that I might find what I was looking for in the church. Not nearly so trendy but where else could I find forgiveness, love, mystery, company, drama and music to die for all in one place? It certainly worked for me, and there is only so much drumming that a woman can cope with.

The article continues: “Then, of course, there is the matter of telling us that the Church possesses the Absolute Truth… We’re much more comfortable with the idea of a multiplicity of little truths than one single unifying truth. But even if universal truth does exist, we are extremely skeptical that you – or anyone else – can possess it…”

Sometimes the Church can be so arrogant – and so off-putting – in its assertion that it holds the Absolute Truth. I like the idea of ‘little truths’.

And finally: “…What do you have left to persuade us? One thing: the story. We are story people. We know narratives, not ideas. Our surrogate parents were the TV and the VCR, and we can spew out entertainment trivia at the drop of a hat. We treat our ennui with stories, more and more stories, because they’re the only things that make sense; when the external stories fail, we make a story of our own lives… Perhaps the only thing you can do, then, is to point us towards Golgotha, a story that we can make sense of. Show us the women who wept and loved the Lord but couldn’t change his fate. Remind us that Peter, the rock of the Church, denied the Messiah three times. Tell us that Pilate washed his hands of the truth. something we are often tempted to do. Mostly, though, turn us towards God hanging on the cross. That is what the world does to the holy. Where the cities of God and Man intersect, there is a crucifixion… A story needs a storyteller, and it is the Church alone that tells the story of salvation. Here in the Church is where the cities of Man and God meet, and that is why all the real spiritual battles, the most exciting adventure stories, begin here. We know that death will continue to break our hearts and our bodies, but it’s not the end of the story. Because of all the stories competing for our attention, the story of the City of God is the only one worth living, and dying, for.”

The Church as a place where the cities of God and Man (sic) meet. An old city with crumbling walls and peeling paint and holes in the roof. But a city that we are being given to rebuild. But not to raze it to the ground and start again putting up modern concrete boxes with no respect for the past. No, we need to listen to the stories of the old women and men sitting in the evening warmth. We need to hear how it was in it’s heigh-day and why it was so grand and why people came from all over to visit and adore. We need to rebuild with respect for the past but incorporating the knowledge we have now. And we need to keep telling the stories.

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