People are searching for something.  Most don’t know what it is, they just know their life doesn’t have it.  A vast number of people are on an emotional migration looking for meaning in life.  They wander and stop here and there when they think they have found a place, a social space, that provides for their needs.

Mainline churches in North America are really dying out. The average age of ‘church goers’ is increasing.  Dying of old age is one of the biggest factors in declining membership.    Why is this happening and where will the people go if not to church?  Is there a ‘new game’ in town?

William Bradshaw, a contributor for  the Huffington Post’s Blog gives an interesting analysis;

One prominent theory is that Mainline churches have increasingly focused on a theology that promotes social causes and the liberal line in politics rather than concentrating on matters of faith and doctrine. . . .  In the early 1900s, Mainline Protestantism became especially supportive of “the Social Gospel,” an activists’ theology . . . . . As the twentieth century progressed, Mainline Protestantism became steadily more involved in controversial social and political issues: going from issues such as poverty; race relations; drug addiction; and social justice for the poor; to such matters as involvement in Vietnam; pollution; gun control; campaign finance laws; ordination of women, gays, and lesbians; and non-traditional marriage.

The involvement in such controversial issues was always supported more by denominational leaders and clergy than by laity, resulting in the membership of Mainline churches not being wholeheartedly supportive of church involvement in these issues. Mainline churches were not attracting young families as they had in the past, and as their membership rolls continued to decline, they began experimenting with various forms of worship, creating more discord.

William B. Bradshaw, Mainline Churches: Past, Present, Future, 10/11/2013

According to Bradshaw, people left the mainline churches and headed to ‘fundamentalist’ churches;

. . . . worship services of the fundamentalists were informal with upbeat music, very appealing to young families with children and teens. Fundamentalists emphasized outreach — spreading the word and recruiting new members, for the most part lacking in mainline denominations. The doctrinal clarity of fundamentalism leaves no doubt about how biblical passages should be interpreted, leading to certainty about how members should live their daily lives now and providing them with a faith that assures everlasting life. The lack of discord about participation in the liberal social and political agenda leads to a sense of contentment and security. All of this has proved to be very popular, as the fundamentalists have increased in membership as Protestant mainliners have continued to decline.

And now, the more fundamentalist and evangelical churches are feeling effects of this emotional migration as well.  John Dickerson writing  for the New York Times tells us;

But while America’s population grows by roughly two million a year, attendance across evangelical churches — from the Southern Baptists to Assembles of God and nondenominational churches — has gradually declined, according to surveys of more than 200,000 congregations by the American Church Research Project.

The movement also faces a donation crisis as older evangelicals, who give a disproportionately large share, age. Unless younger evangelicals radically increase their giving, the movement will be further strained.

Evangelicals have not adapted well to rapid shifts in the culture — including, notably, the move toward support for same-sex marriage. The result is that evangelicals are increasingly typecast as angry and repressed bigots. In 2007, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in a survey of 1,300 college professors, found that 3 percent held “unfavorable feelings” toward Jews, 22 percent toward Muslims and 53 percent toward evangelical Christians.

The Decline of Evangelical America,  By JOHN S. DICKERSON, December 15, 2012, New York Times – Sunday Review

Why the decline?  According to Dickerson:

Instead of offering hope, many evangelicals have claimed the role of moral gatekeeper, judge and jury. If we continue in that posture, we will continue to invite opposition and obscure the “good news” we are called to proclaim.

I believe the cultural backlash against evangelical Christianity has less to do with our views — many observant Muslims and Jews, for example, also view homosexual sex as wrong, while Catholics have been at the vanguard of the movement to protect the lives of the unborn — and more to do with our posture.

People are not finding what they are seeking in churches that work a ‘social gospel’ Nor do they find it in churches that provide a security blanket of inflexible doctrine and ‘hard line’ views.  So they wander like lost sheep.  Searching, settling for a while in places that seem to offer respite and then they move on.

The latest oasis  in the quest for belonging is a fellowship that promises no doctrine, no sacred texts and no forced social agenda.  Just good times, singing, sharing, learning and helping others is offered up as uplifting entertainment.   It’s very similar to ‘church’ with the same format but without any ‘annoying’ doctrine or ‘God talk’.  Andrew Brown of The Guardian describes the Sunday Assembly in this way; “The Sunday Assembly is not a revolt against God. It’s a revolt against dogma.   At these ‘Pentecostalism for the godless’ services, nobody cares much what you think – as long as you share an enthusiasm for life. . . . ”  He goes on:

There is singing and dancing and a great deal of laughter.  No one cares much what you think – what matters is to share an enthusiasm for life. Sanderson Jones, one of the founders, calls it “Pentecostalism for the godless”. In fact the outward forms are like any modern evangelical church: the choir, the music group and the lyrics to the songs projected on the back of the stage are all familiar. The performance is unobtrusively professional and everyone has lots of fun.

How do this ‘Godless’ assembly differ from the mainstream church?  Brown tells us;

The people who come here are very like a successful Anglican congregation. Unlike Christians in London, they are overwhelmingly white. They are also predominantly young or in early middle age and there is a sprinkling of children. In front of the congregation are piled cans and packets collected for the homeless. It is all enormously familiar, except that the average age of Anglican congregations now is about 62, and here it’s maybe 30 years younger.

Will this grow or is it just another way station in the quest for meaning and belonging that people trod along but never arrive? Leah McLaren of the Globe and Mail reports;

From its start early last year, Sunday Assembly quickly developed a large following in North London. Today it has 28 active chapters around the world and over 125 other “areas of interest,” according to its website. It has non-profit status in the U.S. and is about to get the same in the U.K. It’s growing in Canada, too. The organization’s website says there are “congregations” in seven Canadian cities, though some seem to have hosted just a one-off event in the past year. This Sunday, Toronto’s Trinity St. Paul’s Centre will host the city’s first Sunday Assembly potluck lunch.

LEAH MCLAREN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Thursday, Dec. 18 2014

Will this oasis of belonging sour? Will  the waters of no doctrine, no god but lots of hugs and  belonging eventually dry? Or will the church of no structure become structured even without ‘dragdown’ doctrine and fun killing morality?

McLaren considers the question;

Sunday Assembly’s success illustrates the longing for spiritual ritual among atheists and agnostics like myself, but does it risk verging on something cultish the larger it becomes?

Last year, one skeptical member of the London congregation, Robbie Harris, told the BBC news: “It will become an organized religion. It’s inevitable. A belief system will set in. There will be a structure, an ethical outlook on life.”

Who knows what Sunday Assembly will evolve into and how long people will camp  in its shelter before moving on.  One thing is sure – people are looking, searching, longing and not finding.  Why, because it isn’t about positive social change.  It isn’t about a secure emotional blanket of ‘black and white’ doctrine and a distant judging God.  It isn’t about group hugs and happy times. The search for meaning is about personal transformation and a search for God Himself.  We aren’t looking for a community, we are looking for a Person.  When we find Him we’ll be home!

Centuries ago the Apostle Paul speaking to another assembly of seekers explained what is happening and the true nature of our endless quest for something  ‘spiritual’;

God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’  (Acts 17:24-28)

Maybe some day we’ll finally get it and stop running.