Last summer I joined a large group of extended family and friends at the beach. There were, on and off, about twenty-five to thirty of us. Come Sunday morning, some slept in, some worked out, two went running, one read the newspaper and watched the Sunday morning talk shows. Most of the group undertook an obligatory annual ritual of pancakes at Uncle Andy’s Pancake House. Want to know what this crowd of mostly Irish- and Italian-American, largely parochial school educated, cradle Catholics did not do? Go to church.
Why would I want my dechurched family members to witness this gathering of the Body of Christ? The last place I would want to reintroduce them to worship was this half empty church for a half-hearted exercise in fund raising and a full miss when it comes to what the Christian community is supposed to be about.
You might wonder what I did about this dechurched epiphany in the heart of my own family. I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness they didn’t go to church, at least to the parish church in this town. I know what I’m talking about. I went.
Back in the day, this church would have been mobbed on summer Sunday mornings. Not anymore. There were plenty of empty seats. And the congregation was old, old, old. At the door a grumpy usher grunted at me. Everyone else avoided eye contact and ignored me. More than most churches in my experience, this congregation exuded a huge “us versus them” culture (which seems ironic given that they’re in a resort community). A hundred little details underscored for me as a visitor that I did not belong.
There was no opening hymn, because the organist hadn’t shown up on time. The organ was in the sanctuary, so you could see she wasn’t there, and you could also see when our luck ran out and she did show up (during the homily). When the music came, it was old school stuff, which everyone knows (and no one likes). Nobody sang or even pretended to try, except the organist herself who also served as a kind of Wagnerian cantor.
The lector read the readings in a way that convinced me he’d never laid eyes on them before. The celebrant was not the pastor, but some other priest who did not bother to introduce himself. He sort of assumed we knew who he was, but it didn’t matter. Who he was or what he had to say seemed deeply irrelevant to the assembly. As became clear, he was a visiting missionary, there to raise funds for his mission, though he never told us a single thing about it.
He began, “Your pastor loves you, so he told me not to talk for more than five minutes.” The preacher then proceeded to quote a different gospel than the one we’d just heard, which is usually a clear indication of a canned talk. It quickly became obvious that was exactly what we were hearing. Next he told a string of groan-inducing jokes and then turned on the guilt about hungry children.Visit the same time, ushers were handing out pledge cards to relieve the guilt and support the mission. Instructions for filling out the cards took up the rest of the homily. Here’s the thing: Virtually no one paid any attention. They stared at the ceiling, they stared at the floor, they talked to one another, they gave a glance to the card then dropped it on the floor, but they paid no attention to the presentation, and, as far as I could see, no one actually made a pledge.
Then we powered through the rest of the Mass as if the building was on fire. When I returned to my seat from Communion, almost the entire section I was seated in was gone. Finally the remaining faithful were inundated with a string of announcements, which were actually, unbelievably, more fundraising appeals, this time for the parish itself. At the dismissal, instead of some charge to go in peace and serve the Lord or announce the Gospel, the celebrant says, “Don’t forget, at the beach, it’s always Happy Hour.” Really? Did you just give them permission to start drinking?
Why would I want any of my dechurched family members to have set aside their various weekend activities to witness this gathering of the Body of Christ? The last place I would want to reintroduce them to worship was this half empty church for a half-hearted exercise in fund raising and a full miss when it comes to what the Christian community is supposed to be about when it assembles.
Meanwhile, just down the street at Uncle Andy’s Pancake House, enthusiastic crowds formed a waiting line that snaked all the way around the block. Hmmm … Uncle Andy’s got pancakes. We’ve got the living Word of God. What’s wrong with this picture?
This article is excerpted from Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, Making Church Matter by Michael White and Tom Corcoran. Copyright 2013 by Ave Maria Press, P.O. Box 428, Notre Dame, IN 46556. Used with permission of the publisher. Rebuilt is available at Amazon and Cokesbury.