Sunday, February 24, 2013

Churches Go Secular and Meet the Wrecking Ball

Something to Avoid: Churches can fall into a spiral now that results in the bulldozer later. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is flurry of media stories about the closing of Catholic schools in America.  I don't know if that is meant to trumpet the secular tendencies to cry " We believe in Science and Reason!  We are Evolved and on the Right Side of History and, by Zeus, Bill Moyers thinks well of us!"   That's nice.

Perhaps, it is a an actual call to action.

I go to church. Catholics call it Celebrating the Eucharist.  It seems to me that in congregations where the priest is central to the worship, as Christ's consecrated celebrant, the pews are packed.  In others, where the Rev. Mr. Clergy holds the congregation captive, if not captivated with his stunning personal charisma and NPR homiletic stylings, there is plenty of seating and more than a few husbands pulling the Judas shuffle* after communion. Where the sacred and the traditional hold, the devout can be found.

Catholic schools are traditionally appendages of the parish church, when the parish empties so too the schools. Catholics feel an obligation to provide faith-rooted services to all and the economic realities are of that sensibility are becoming all too real. especially in the inner-city. 

In my years of service to Leo High School in the Auburn Gresham community, I have witnessed the closings of the following parish schools - St. Leo, St. Justin Martyr, St. Dennis, St. Killian, St. Ethelda, St. Thomas More . . .to name but a few as well as Academy of Our Lady ( Longwood) and St. Martin Porres High Schools.  Most of these closing had been the result of racial change and the infeasibility of continued operation due to enrollment and family by-in - paying tuition.

Alone of the above mentioned parishes, St. Thomas More continues as a church and attracts parishioners from far beyond its territorial boundaries. Interviewee Father Tony Brankin and his successor maintained the traditional Catholic worship and eschewed the rather sad attempt of some pastors to morph into a non-descript Christian place of worship.  St. Sabina Parish alone, by dint of its pastor's political savvy and personal magnetism thrives as a definitively Black Church. Father Brankin filled the pews without aid of the Chicago media, or celebrity guests. He did so, as does his successor, by maintaining the sacred in the Catholic liturgy -in the vernacular and in Latin.

Father Brankin has managed to do the same for St. Odilo's parish in Berwyn, where it is very tough to find a seat at every Mass. Schools that are rooted in the Catholic traditions do well. However, funding most be provided.  Here at Leo High School, black and white alumni pour funding back to the school that prepared them.  The bulk of the Alumni giving comes from the aging white graduates and much work is going to be needed to find ways of shoring up the loss in contributions from dying patrons.

Leo High School has provided a quality college preparatory education for the sons of Chicago families since 1926.  From 1926 until 1990, the majority of students at Leo were Roman Catholic. From 1991- 2011 less than 9% of the African American student body claimed to be Catholic.  In 2011, 12% of the students are now Catholic.  Here's where it gets tough - 87% of these students receive financial assistance provided by the school or the Big Shoulders Fund. Leo High School struggles to boost its enrollment and attract more families who can or are willing to meet the cost of a Catholic education.

To my surprise, the closing of churches also greatly affect the Protestant churches and it seems for much of the same reasons. Jeffrey Walton offers a solid study. 

Regardless of if they are traditionalist or revisionist, these older churches are leasing their church buildings to pre-schools and other non-church groups and feature graying congregations.
With this backdrop from my local community in mind, Associated Baptist Press caught my attention this week with a story about a church in Decatur, Georgia which is about to be shuttered, demolished, and re-developed into a shopping center. Once drawing 500 persons on a Sunday, Scott Boulevard Baptist Church is now down to less than 50 members, most of which are rapidly aging.To be clear, the congregation, affiliated with the moderate-liberal Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, isn’t dissolving. Having secured a lease agreement with a nearby church, Scott Boulevard will continue on without their facility of 60 years. But the article establishes the downward trajectory of the church.
Congregational aging, if unplanned for, can be gut-wrenching,” the article reads. “And it’s likely in store for more congregations who fail to track the intersecting trends of giving and aging that eventually forced Scott Boulevard from its property.” . . . 
Scott Boulevard’s story reminded me of two Baptist congregations in my town. One was never large and failed to cultivate children’s programs, by default directing any new families who arrived at the church to another (thriving) Baptist congregation a few blocks north. The small congregation dissolved, sold its building to another church, and placed the revenue from the sale in the hands of a Baptist mission organization. It was a God-honoring exit, but not what they had probably hoped for.
The other church, housed in a large building, once attracted over 1,500 persons on a Sunday. In the 1970s they failed to adapt to changing demographics – namely, an influx of northerners and immigrants – and the congregation is now down to about 50 persons. I am told that every young church plant in Arlington has hopefully inquired about moving into the church building. . . . we note that many fading congregations proclaim liberal theologies that are not in accord with traditional church teachings. But while theological traditionalism is almost always a prerequisite for a large, vibrant congregation, it is not the only element. (emphases my own) 
There must be attention to core values and also attention mission strategies and tactics.  Religion has enough wolves licking their chops in anticipation of a slowed gait; the secular world has replaced faith with science.  That is foolish in itself.  Science (theoretical) is merely a tool to somehow understand the world and practical science a means to tweak problems.  Wisdom begins with fear (respect) for God and that respect is merely means of sorting the tools.

(Catholicism) The act of leaving Mass early, typically between receiving communion and the concluding rite, without a justifiable reason for doing so. The Judas shuffle is named after Judas Iscariot, who left the Last Supper (the first Mass/Divine Liturgy) early in order to summon the guards to arrest Jesus. This is also known as pulling a Murphy.

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