Parish Diary

What makes for a practicing Christian? Why do so few people go to church today? Some people say that churches are emptying because they are too progressive, too sold-out to the culture, too devoid of old, timeless truth. Some suggest exactly the opposite, namely, that churches are emptying because they are too slow to change, too caught up in old traditions that no longer make sense. And some suggest that the real issue is not whether the church is too progressive or regressive. Rather, less & less people are going to church because “basically people treat their churches exactly the way they treat their own families; they want them around, but they don’t go home to visit them all that much!” Reginald Bibby, the Canadian sociologist of religion, said: “People aren’t leaving their churches, they just aren’t going to them – & that is a difference that needs to be understood.” There is a difference between leaving a family & just not showing up regularly for its celebrations. Who belongs to the church? What makes for a practising Christian? When is someone’s relationship to the church mortally terminated? What does it mean to be outside the church? Who is entitled to receive the rites of baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, & Christian burial.

People are treating their churches just like they treat their families. Theologically the church is family. Ecclesiology has to look to family life to properly understand itself. Thus, inside of our families: Who is in & who is out? When does someone cease being a “practicing” member of a family? Does someone cease to be a member of a family because he or she doesn’t come home much anymore? Do we refuse to give a wedding for a son or daughter just because he or she, caught up in youth & self-interest, hasn’t come home the last couple of years for Easter & Christmas?

Many of us have children & siblings who largely use the family for their own needs & convenience. They want the family around, but on their terms. They want the family for valued contact at key moments (weddings, births of children, funerals, anniversaries, birthdays, & so on) but they don’t want a relationship to it that is really committed & regular. Families understand this, accept it, swallow hard sometimes, & remain a family despite it. In any family, there will be different levels of participation. Some will give more, others will take more. Some, will carry most of the burden – arrange the dinners, pay for them, keep inviting the others, do most of the work, & take on the task of trying to preserve the family bond & ethos. Others, because of youthful restlessness, immaturity, self-interest, confusion, peer-pressure, laziness, anger, whatever, will carry less, take the family for granted, & buy in largely on their own terms. That describes most families & is also a pretty accurate description of most churches. There are different levels of participation & maturity, but there is only one church & that church, like any family, survives precisely because some members are willing to carry more of the burden than others. Those others, do not cease being members of the family.

They ride on the grace of the others, literally. It’s how family works; how grace works; how church works.

Church must be understood as family: Certain things can put you out of the family, true. However, in most families, simple immaturity, hurt, confusion, distraction, laziness, youthful sexual restlessness, & self-preoccupation – the reasons why most people who do not go to church stay away – do not mortally sever your connection. You remain a family member. You don’t cease being “a practising member” of the family because for a time you aren’t home very much. Families understand this. Ecclesial family, church, I believe, needs to be just as understanding.  (Fr. Ron Rolheiser)

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