I have every reason to believe the story I am about to tell you is true. I am going to change some identifiable details anyway, however, because — knowing my luck — somebody out there is in litigation over the situation I’ll describe, and I’d rather not end up in court.
When I was little, my father helped an “uncle” build a boat. Uncle Hank was the stepfather of an aunt by-marriage, but my parents loved him and his wife Martha, who were — like my Mom and Dad themselves — generous and hospitable, funny and kind. The boat Uncle Hank was building was a literal work of art, and my father, along with dozens of others, took pride in it, regularly visiting it in its harbor gallery. I don’t know how Aunt Martha felt about it when Uncle Hank broke with convention and, rather than including hers in the boat’s name, he called it The Sanctuary.
Forty years later, Uncle Hank’s regal, handmade schooner began taking a toll on him. It required physically demanding upkeep, money, and time. Those who helped build it had gotten older, too. A man came along expressing interest in buying The Sanctuary, and Uncle Hank reluctantly took the deal rather than watch the boat deteriorate further. Sadly, it deteriorated anyway. The buyer didn’t share Uncle Hank’s work ethic or aesthetic, so Uncle Hank secretly went out almost every day to take care of it, until one day he looked out, and The Sanctuary wasn’t there. He then learned the sickening story of the buyer’s real intent.
The person who purchased The Sanctuary had always coveted the mooring location Uncle Hank had for the ship. It was highly visible in a tourist destination, and he wanted a place to show off his shiny new purchases to passers-by. After buying The Sanctuary, however, the buyer’s heart surely sank when he learned that moorings and boats aren’t a package deal. He now owned The Sanctuary, but Uncle Hank still held title to the mooring, and between the buyer and Uncle Hank was a long waiting list of others who would get the mooring first. Rather than “sink” any more money into the failed project, the buyer hired some workers to take The Sanctuary out to sea, blow it up, and scuttle it.
I learned of the fate of The Sanctuary five years after the events that led to her demise, and yet the story affected me as deeply as if I’d watched this work of art get blown to bits firsthand. Why? Because my father died almost three years ago, and I miss him, and I know he loved Uncle Hank and that boat. Also, the saga dripped of greed winning out over devotion, and I hate it when one of my core values loses in a fight. Finally, there was something about the story that reminded me of another precious Sanctuary, one to which I have dedicated my life’s work, that’s in trouble.
In an article entitled “They’re Not Coming Back,” pastor and consultant Rob Dyer compares the post-/not-post pandemic churches of today’s attendance patterns to those of the gradual mainline decline beginning in the 1970s. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, when decline was starting to become more noticeable, parishioners and clergy would say about departing adolescents and young adults, “They’ll be back when they have babies to be baptized.” Sometimes that happened, and sometimes it didn’t. Later, we’d say, “They’ll be back when their kids are ready for Sunday School… or for youth group… or for their own weddings.” Statistically speaking, that assumption got less and less correct over time.
Dyer goes on to describe assumptions about how people will return in-earnest to churches they left abruptly in March 2020. They’ll be back when we meet in-person… when Sunday School resumes… when they don’t have to wear masks anymore… when Delta/Omicron subside… Even as we say these words, we know on some deep level that we might very well be wrong. Maybe folks didn’t miss church nearly as much as we hoped they would. Pastors look out in the pews and feel that sickening, sinking feeling of empty sea where The Sanctuary used to be.
Dyer is by no means hopeless. He writes elsewhere that we’re being called to bring Jesus more fully into the lives of those who seek a life-giving way in church. The pandemic has taught us what the world does and doesn’t require from the church; there are some things we can find elsewhere, and others we can’t. In the long-run, meeting people in their places of need, listening to their deepest yearnings, and helping them see the beauty and meaning they can find in following Jesus is where we’ll need to go. Honestly, the idea of being what Dyer calls “Spiritual Trauma Centers” excites me so much more than a church that offers weekly town meetings and seasonal craft fairs.
But until then, we have some shock to get over. I serve a seminary where we educate those who are going to navigate some rough waters. The old ship was beautiful; it was a work of art. Over time, it became more like a placeholder in the eyes of some, while in the eyes of those who loved her, it never looked like anything less than majesty incarnate. That latter group now has to look with fresh eyes and realize that something new is required. The empty space — the mooring without a vessel — can be viewed as a tragedy or an opportunity. I choose to see opportunity, as the need for healing and meaning and community and love and JESUS: those didn’t go down with the ship.