From the Editor: Sunday Best

Ray Waddle

I once knew a minister who sent a memo to his flock of 1,000 imploring them to dress better for Sunday worship. Please, no flip-flops or tank tops, he declared. You’re in church, for heaven’s sake – let’s make a special effort for God.

The memo was an unusual decree, and it made page-one news. He wasn’t mean about it. He just thought society was changing in unthinking ways, getting too lax about important practices. Standards were at stake. This was the late 1990s, when democratizing trends of informality, evident in American society since the 1960s, would soon be irreversible.

I think the pastor was trying to make a point about the distinctiveness of the Christian faith: Church should be different from the rest of the week. Alas, his strategy looked self-defeating and inhospitable. He had also underestimated a force barreling through the culture for decades if not centuries – the individual’s power of choice, the choice to show up as we are, the choice to show up not at all.

As much as anything since World War II, this has changed the dynamics of churchgoing in America.

Before the modern period, religion was a takenfor- granted fact of life. One’s tradition of belief was mostly an accident of birth, part of one’s identity in an unalterable social fabric. Not so long ago, churchgoing was a social expectation. People dressed for it. But the grinding forces of modern history undermined that architecture of stable assumptions. Hierarchies fell, social consensus weakened, the economy turned punishing. And individual choice awakened. The individual was liberated, free to craft a personal destiny, a personal path to truth in an internet-inflected cosmos. Trust in traditional gatekeepers of knowledge declined.

According to certain academic orthodoxies, religion itself was supposed to evaporate under such secularizing stresses. Yes, traditional belief by now shows measurable diminishment. But religion and spirituality do not. In his 2011 memoir Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist, Peter Berger amended the secularization theory to say: “Modernity does not necessarily secularize; it necessarily pluralizes.” Pluralism erodes religion’s taken-for-granted status, but it doesn’t destroy religion. It creates more spiritual choices, a cacophony of gods.

This has inaugurated a long season of soulsearching for congregations. If churchgoing is now a matter of choice, not fate, then it’s plausible to expect fewer people will attend, at least at first. Those who choose to attend don’t have to be there – they arrive and they stay for their own good reasons, perhaps more purposefully than many did before.

In such conditions, religious institutions are endeavoring anew to make the case for belief. They can no longer depend on brand loyalty or a captive audience. They are reaching for fresh vocabularies to retell the story and renew the gospel adventure.

In all sorts of ways, the writers in this Fall 2015 Reflections are declaring the urgency of church today – witnessing to the power of public confession, the courage to make new neighborhood connections, the wisdom of the long view.

Despite the dazzle and disasters of the 21st-century, human nature hasn’t changed. Old-fashioned brokenness and devastation haven’t moved off center. A church is the place where the soul is acknowledged, where a person can hear oneself think, connect to vast currents of holiness, or find common cause with a stranger. Congregations are also partners in democracy: People learn to work with others, put aside despair over our political, class, or racial divides – or learn to break through them.

Congregations are the last places in America, I think the very last, where time is set aside for values and motives that resist the oceanic self-promotion of culture, the laws of raw self-interest, or the sleepless digital fear of missing out.

G.K. Chesterton once said a person should always be in opposition to the strongest thing in one’s time, “for the strongest thing of the time is always too strong.” The church of the present and future will be a spiritual, political presence that can stand up to the inhuman powers of every moment – the violent solutions, national myths, ruthless materialistic advantage, and lack of skepticism about these things.

The reign of God is always near, very near. The writers in this issue all speak to the distinctiveness of that calling – which includes prayer, reverence, mirth, vulnerable emotion, beauty, and thankless acts of mercy. A Sunday morning dress code isn’t on the list.