A Congregation Gathering for Worship

Pastors are busy on Sunday morning, stretched thin, attending to a thousand and one details: have all the ushers shown up, are there enough bulletins, is the sanctuary warm, sidewalks clear of snow? Are the musicians in place, is the family on time and every child present and accounted for, and looming over all, is the sermon, over which he or she has labored for a week, finally ready to be launched? As the director of the drama that public worship is, pastors, in my experience, don’t worship much. Only the music, the great hymns of the church and the choir’s anthem, lift the pastor’s spirit briefly out of the humdrum ordinary and into the presence of the Holy.

As a consequence the pastor never sees something extraordinary – a congregation gathering for worship. Since retiring I am in my pew on Sunday morning whenever I am in town. I love watching them arrive, watching as friends greet one another with hearty handshakes and hugs. I was astonished one Sunday recently to see how much hugging was going on in the sanctuary. People waved to one another, started up animated conversations, all this before a formal greeting by an usher and then finding their way to a favorite pew. It’s a real community, I realized and as I pondered what I was seeing concluded that it was truly unique.  Nothing quite like it happens elsewhere, not in theaters, concert halls, classrooms, even Wrigley Field, although the similarities between a sanctuary full of worshippers and a crowd of Cubs fans at Wrigley are very real. But the congregation, coming together out of separate lives, from separate places, young and old, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, to be in God’s presence together, bound by a common faith and a common hope – there is simply nothing like it anywhere.

Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone, documented the decline of social organizations across American culture from the P.T.A. to political parties and block clubs. Putnam famously observed that while the number of people bowling is on the rise, the number of bowling leagues has declined. People are bowling alone. Social organizations of all kinds create the adhesive that holds a culture together, Putnam said and called it “social capital.”

I’m sure it happens in lots of churches and synagogues and mosques but where I worship the social capital is robust, lovely and growing.

Oddly, it is precisely at the moment that the cohort of the population known as Millennials is experiencing the loss of community, social capital, most intensely.

In the Martin E. Marty Center’s online column, Sightings, Marty recently cited an article from a Lutheran publication, “The Millennial Mystery”, that described a generation distanced from church, yet longing for community. One has to ask, if Millennials are longing for community, why are they not finding their way to one place in contemporary society where genuine community is at the very heart of the enterprise, the church?

Putnam and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, in their very helpful book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, report that churches come off in the media not as places of genuine community but as concentrations of racism, sexism, homophobia, political harshness, judgementalism, negativism about sexuality and reproductive issues and anti-scientism. Religious hostility toward science is not new of course, but biblical
literalism, often accompanied by climate change denial is a profound turn-off for Millennials.

Nevertheless, there is that amazing moment when, out of their hyper-active, almost frantic lives, worrying about the future, disconcerted by embarrassing, unprecedented behavior by the President, a community gathers, friends greet one another with an embrace, and then sit quietly together in the presence of that which is greater than any of us, bound to one another by friendship and a shared trust in the holy mystery we call God.




  1. Deanna Thomas Clark says:

    Love reading your commentary, my friend!

  2. Jerold Shetler says:

    Well spoken John!

  3. Tim Jaqua says:

    Thank you for stating and elaborating on precise points I have been pondering for some years what seems obvious to me. Perhaps some general social shift will draw them toward each other so their families will have that cohesion.

  4. I’ve been sitting in close to the same spot in either the 9:30 or 11:00 service for over 30 years and still don’t feel like I belong to 4th Church. I’m comforted by the fact that Jesus was an outcast. Brene Brown tells me I belong wherever I am so I stay put. I used to call people by their names because of course I knew them after a few years but they never seemed to remember mine. And now I forget too. I once was invisible and now Im just isolated. In my pee. Sunday mornings.

    It’s not millennials.

  5. The 8:00 Communion service is a fit for me. Community. Friendship. Trust in the Holy Mystery. As Sonja returned hugs and smiles I smiled too. Prayers of gratitude fill me. Thanks.

  6. Tony Volpe says:

    Being raised Catholic, I learned about the concept of The Communion of Saints. I have always interpreted that as meaning we are all of us saints, and in gathering together, whether in a church or other gathering, we are indeed a community of saints living lives of mutual support and respect.

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