Why is church so ‘awful dull’?Published 9:07am Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Column: David Behling, Notes from Home
“… heaven won’t be like church — all the time,” said Anne.
“I hope it ain’t,” said Davy, “if it is, I don’t want to go. Church is awful dull.”
— E.M.Montgomery, from “Anne of the Island”
Yeah, church can be “awful dull” sometimes, especially for younger believers. Lots of blah, blah, blah and sitting still — quiet is expected and enforced. And while I like older people — like them more and more the closer I get to their age — it’s a little disconcerting that the average age at most worship services is so … well, old. Most of us in the pews are gray, bald or wrinkled, or all three.
Why is this so? Where are all those young people whom we once heard in the children’s choir and saw during confirmation classes? They’re elsewhere, working at Pizza Ranch or McDonald’s or Walmart. Why? Their choice to be absent is partly the consequences of a society that values work above anything else, but it’s also the result of what worship often is today: traditional and quiet and slow and … yes, even tedious. Their absence is also due to things that happened much earlier in their lives and to the way churches set their priorities.
Since I’m a pastor’s wife, some might be surprised at this bleak view of worship and children; they may think I’m being more than a little unfair. But if more church members asked the parents of young children — of children of any age, actually — they might find that bleak view pretty widespread.
What I know is this: when I sat in a pew with one, then two, then three young children, attending church became a burden, not a joy. Would I run out of snacks before the service was over? Would these noisy offspring get my spouse in trouble? Would I grow to despise the adults giving me the stink eye? My spiritual life suffered if I went to church. I suspect that the early memories of worship my kids have are all of me giving them the stink eye, shushing them, or taking them out of the sanctuary.
I don’t know exactly where this animosity toward noisy little kids comes from. Is it a belief that we can only worship God one way — the quiet way? Is it theological? Is it cultural? Is it honest resentment because children don’t belong here? A lot of worship is directed at adults, so maybe the sanctuary is designed as an adults-only zone.
I bring this up because I do care about the church. I find the lack of youth participation and leadership at worship services to be depressing. Worship is something that energizes and focuses me each week. That should be the experience for everybody else, but it’s not going to happen if those of us involved in worship planning are afraid to rock the boat, afraid to ask worshippers to learn some new hymns and maybe even dance a little in the pews.
There’s another factor, though, that is far more problematic than what happens (or doesn’t happen) at worship services. It’s the priorities factor, and it’s a problem at more than just religious institutions. More often than we realize it, we get the important things mixed up with the unimportant. We send messages all the time to children and other outsiders about where our hearts are.
What is the mission of our organization? Is it doing something to serve the community? Or is it keeping our organization alive no matter what? We spend far too much time choosing the color of the carpeting or arguing about Robert’s Rules of Order and not nearly enough serving neighbors or youth or whoever we claim we’re focusing our energies on.
Anyway, now that my children are just about all grown up, I sit by myself most of the time at church. She-who-must-be-obeyed is almost always up front, preaching, chanting, etc, etc, etc. But our kids are elsewhere, still in the building, but busily doing other things, like helping with Sunday school or planning youth ministry events.
So far they haven’t gotten jobs that require Sunday morning hours. And there is this blessing: The youngest sits and worships with me at least once a month.
I tell myself that at least they’re active and involved, even if it doesn’t include worshipping. I repeat that sentiment as a kind of mantra. But still I wish we worshipped together as a family, that worship — that the church — was something that supports them the way it supports me.
Albert Lea resident David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column usually appears every other Tuesday.