In California’s Big Sur stands a lighthouse. The Point Sur lighthouse, standing 270 feet above the waves, was constructed in 1889. It’s one of the oldest lighthouses in California still in operation today, helping mariners steer clear of the rocky coast.
Whaaat? A working lighthouse in this day of pinpoint GPS and sophisticated radar systems? Isn’t that so . . . 1889?
Some things stand the test of time.
There’s growing evidence that churches are dying in the U.S., especially those of mainline denominations like Lutheran. While most Americans still believe in God, more and more of them reject any religious affiliation and less and less of them attend church.
This doesn’t bode well for an institution – the Church – that for most of American history was an important part of the fabric that kept America and Americans together. While denominations may have squabbled about certain theological distinctions, churches (especially at the local level) were places where people generally put aside their differences, came together and showed how even the big issues could be addressed by putting Jesus’s words and example into action.
In a sense, the local church was that lighthouse to help steer us away from the rocky shoals of divisive politics, discrimination, border security and income inequality. Coming together for weekly worship helped neutralize the many friction points that naturally developed in the home, the workplace, the community and even the nation. People are people, after all; we don’t always get along in everyday life. Worship became a gathering place in American life as Christians focused on their Creator and reflected on how they could make the world better.
We are on the precipice of losing that, aren’t we?
Critics often argue that we don’t need churches to worship God and to live godly lives, that encounters with the Almighty can just as easily come in solitary moments of Bible study and prayer or even in a sunrise hike. Yet they overlook the importance of being together with other followers of Jesus. There is power and grace in gathering with others. God just seems to work differently – more tangibly, more powerfully – in group settings. Perhaps, in those settings, the Holy Spirit amplifies the power of the individual, much like individual atoms gathered into a critical mass create nuclear fusion.
We know that’s true, don’t we? One of the not-so-surprising facts in church life is that worship attendance swells in a crisis. Remember 9/11? Even the balcony at Ascension was filled in the weeks after the attacks on American soil. There was something comforting and powerful in coming together to grieve and hope for the future.
If the data are correct, there’s a good chance of losing that blessing of community through the Church within the next two decades as more and more churches either close or become irrelevant. Perhaps Joni Mitchell was right: “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got/Till it’s gone.”
Spanning centuries and geography, the local church has stood as a lighthouse. Even when we can download the Bible on our iPhones or take Communion online or watch sermons on YouTube or reach out to others on Facebook, we still need each other . . . in the flesh. Much like the triune God in whose image we were created, the need for fellowship – being together – has been built into each of us.
The writer of Hebrews was onto this: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25, emphasis added).
A lighthouse to one another and to the world.