I never thought I would say this but… I miss Church.
I’ve just been reading some ex-Pentecostal sites where people tell their horror stories growing up in the Pentecostal movement. To balance that, there are also ex-Catholic sites for people who see themselves as scarred growing up Catholic.
No matter your denomination (choose your poison it seems), it’s clear that church attendance is down in this generation, and the current COVID restrictions may be driving a nail in the coffin for people of faith who like to gather with those of like mind.
Attending church now is very different from what anybody experienced a generation ago. Back in the sixties, pretty much every family up and down the street would be lined up on the driveway in their Sunday best, kids in hand-me-downs scratching and fidgeting, and mom likely wearing a hat with netting. Every kid had a denomination, and might even be found jousting with those of other denominations over which was best. My mother for example pretty much dismissed United Church as still unsaved, and don’t even mention the Catholic kids up the block. In our book they were going to Hell in a handcart and we didn’t hang out with them.
Nowadays church is much more relaxed. There are bagel bars and you can come in your flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt, because the preacher is likely wearing a graphic T and needs a haircut more than you do. The bands are pretty much like any bar band despite the lyrics, and you can even do theology with friends in a pub setting.
The contrast is most clear to me when I think back to a summer church camp that our family would occasionally attend. If you were of the faithful, you would rent a trailer up there or a cabin so that you could do church, every day, all summer. The “treat” afforded by such a venue, was a bevy of itinerant specialty preachers. They were a little far out on the spectrum of belief, and were called in both for entertainment, and shock value. They would do such things as “deliverance” ministries (casting out demons), while the more pedestrian church stuff went on like normal at home.
The camp was situated in Cobourg by Lake Ontario. Its beach was largely unusable due to the abundance of dead fish which lined the shores. As kids, morbid fascination drove us to walk up and down ogling the rotting fish getting picked apart by seagulls, smell be damned. Obviously you could not swim in this putrid mess. Worse, modesty codes of the ultra religious at the time dictated that you could not wear shorts (perhaps in the fear that girls would bear a thigh, or worse, don pants.) So… if you can parse this, a kid had to wear “good” clothes which you could not get dirty, despite that there was nowhere to play anyway. The other thing was that your time was gobbled up by church which was part and parcel of attending the camp.
Cross section of a typical day? Early risers could partake in a prayer meeting that happened before breakfast. After breakfast, there was a men’s group, a woman’s group, and in the afternoon, a Bible study and children’s church for the younger set. After supper came an evening service, and it would tend to go late… up to midnight and beyond once the preacher called people forward to pray at the alter. It was a LOT of church. Now when I hear my kids bitch about going to church, I just look at them and say… “You don’t KNOW church, believe me”.
Thinking back, I realize you can take the boy out of the Church, but it’s harder to take the Church out of the boy. The church comprised too much of your social life to be inconsequential. Christian faith was also assumed at school, where we had a Bible story at the beginning of the day, and the Lord’s prayer. It was part of good character training. We were so homogenous. Now we are told that diversity is better, and that it is good to separate Church and State, but I am not so sure. There was a social cohesion that went with all that, which was charming and very solid. You could also count on everyone coming from a similar moral base. There was no question when something was right or wrong.
The thing I remember about our own church, was being late. We were known as the Late Toops, because we would always end up bustling down the aisle once the service had already started, my mom pulling curlers out of her hair along the way. The only family on par with us, was the Late Vaters. We had seven kids and they had five, so getting kids all ready and out the door could perhaps be blamed. Still, I have a paranoia to this day about being late for any function. I generally show up early, just in case.
The things I remember rather fondly, were the Christmas pageants and the Sunday School Picnic, generally held out a Young’s Point, a nature area with lakes and picnic shelters big enough to house a crowd. I can also remember that in the social mores of the Pentecostal faith, speaking in tongues and prophesying were held in high regard, and certain people were regulars in that, while others had the gift of interpretation… they would follow up in English explaining what the tongues were all about.
It’s not just the church attendance that has changed, it’s the day itself. Noticeably absent in modern culture, is the distinct rhythm afforded to us by the Lord’s Day Act, which had most retail activity cease on Sundays. This meant that Sunday was a non-commercial day which was devoted to family time and a bit of rest. There was a game play for Sundays that included a special Sunday lunch after church where family gathered. Since they changed the act, that is all history. Now sadly, Sunday is pretty much like any other day.
There was also family TV that went with a Sunday. It’s another barometer for how far culture has shifted in a generation. The evening started off with Hymn Sing, and Don Messer’s Jubilee (an east coast fiddler) followed by the Tommy Hunter Show, and later on to cap it all off, Bonanza. These shows were G rated and supported by all the regular networks. That family time gathered around wholesome TV is a central part of my own Sunday memories.
I am no longer Pentecostal, but I still attend Church. Moreover, I can see that in our current culture, the falling away from faith, and the lack of a religious grounding has robbed people of a proper appreciation for Western thought and its worth. Such luminaries as Northrop Frye (The Great Code: The Bible and Literature) and Harold Bloom (The American Religion) have all weighed in on this, how much Christianity has impacted our culture for the better, if you are a believer and even if you are not.
Yes it was narrow and rather parochial and yet I have to admit that it did me a lot of good that went beyond the religious aspect. Now churches are in decline and it is even posited that we are reentering an age of paganism, as if two thousand years of Christian faith never happened. I see this as a great disaster. There is less social cohesion. Matters of truth have become mutable. There is also the problems that arrive when religions from other parts of the world start to crowd out the assumptions in our culture that we have depended on. With the declining influence of Christianity, our culture is currently undergoing a massive shift.
No matter where you end up from a religious upbringing, it would be hard to deny that a lot of good came in the aggregate. We seem to be in a great falling away, perhaps the one Paul warned about in his letters to the Thessalonians. I count myself for better or worse, as one of the faithful, and yes, it is true. I miss church as I once knew it, a great deal more than I ever thought I would.