Surprisingly, people, even though they may be attending Church services less often, still want their Churches to continue. Some still want to identify themselves religiously with a certain label (" I'm a Baptist, a Roman Catholic, an Anglican," etc.) They also want themselves and their children to receive their Church's rites of passage (baptism, marriage, and burial.) In other words, "they want the church to be there when they want it, even if they do not want it very often. As Canadian sociologist of religion, Reginald Bobby, puts it: "People aren't leaving their churches, they just aren't going to them." (Rolheiser)
And most people who don't practice regularly don't really have the deep questions or the intense angers of the Church's harshest critics. The biggest problems are indifference and a culture of individualism. Most people who don't go to Church on the weekend are relaxing, enjoying family time, shopping, skiing, watching sports games, and working on their lawns, gardens, and houses. As far as Church goes, they're on sabbatical.
So - why should we want and need the Christian Church?
Perhaps if people better understood what the Church is and the Church is not, they may be challenged to stay instead of to walk away.
First of all, the church is the people, a community of hearts and souls coming together. Long before there were buildings, ministers, priests, popes, bishops, organizations, or institutions, "Jesus formed a community around himself, animated it, and then left it his word, his spirit, and the Eucharist. That community is the church, and it is a particular kind of community, an apostolic one." (Rolheiser)
But let's stop right here. Some people have certain ideas about what an apostolic church community is, and while this kind of community may contain some of these aspects, these particular ideas don't contain the whole reality.
For example, it's not completely true to say that a Church community is a group of "likeminded individuals, gathering on the basis of mutual compatibility." (Rolheiser) Anyone who ever sat on a parish council or belonged to any church group for any amount of time knows that is false. If you want reality - look at the apostles!
"The group of disciples that first gathered around Jesus were not individuals who were mutually compatible at all. They came from very different backgrounds and temperaments, had different visions of what Jesus was all about, were jealous of each other, and were, as scripture tells us, occasionally furious with each other. They loved each other, in the biblical meaning of that phrase, but they did not necessarily like each other - akin to a church member who says to a fellow member who is a constant source of irritation to her: 'Janice, my love for you is entirely supernatural, of that I can assure you!
"That is what it means to be church. Too often we are disappointed in church because we find there is such a diverse and motley collection of persons, some of whom do not like us, and whom we would never pick to be our friends. We go to church looking for friendship or ideological soulmates and, often, do not find them. This does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong with the church, merely that we have false expectations. To be in apostolic community, church, is not necessarily to be with others with whom we are emotionally, ideologically, and otherwise compatible. Rather, it is to stand, shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, precisely with people who are very different from ourselves and, with them, hear a common word, say a common creed, share a common bread, and offer a mutual forgiveness so as, in that way, to bridge our differences and become a common heart. Church is not about a few like-minded persons getting together for mutual support; it is about millions and millions of different kinds of persons transcending their differences so as to become a community beyond temperament, race, ideology, gender, language, and background." (Rolheiser)
Likewise, apostolic community is also not a group of people huddling together in fear and loneliness with a "you and me against the world" mentality, as you find when some small sectarian groups form because of a shared fear.
Yes, you do see this kind of false community among the apostles (in John's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles) before they receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost: "they huddled in a room with the doors locked, out of fear." They were physically together, but they were not a real community. Once the Fiery Passionate Spirit of love, courage, and enthusiasm descends upon them, transforming them, they run out of that upper room, preach the Good News to everyone they meet, travel to different parts of the world, and some never see each other again in this life. Yet, even physically separated, THEY HAVE BECOME AND THEY REMAIN, REAL APOSTOLIC COMMUNITY.
Henri Noun says so beautifully "When the Spirit descended on the disciples huddling together in fear, they were free to move out of their closed room into the world. As long as they were assembled in fear they did not yet form community. But when they had received the Spirit, they became a body of people who could stay in communion with each other even when they were as far from each other as Rome is from Jerusalem. Thus, when it is the Spirit of God and not fear that unites us in community, no distance of time or place can separate us."
We also speak of the church as a family, but it is not a family like a family created by a man and woman who come together in sexual love and have children. The nuclear family provides a whole range of emotional, intimate needs that the church community cannot provide.
"Church community can never be a functional substitute for emotional and sexual intimacy. It is not intended to be. One shouldn't go to church looking for a lover. We might well want to remember this at those times when we complain that our churches are too large, too impersonal, and we do not always find there the warmth and emotional support we legitimately desire and need. 'How can I feel any warmth and intimacy,' is the frequently asked question, ' when I am worshiping in a huge church with six hundred other people?'
"If our creeds are correct, and I believe that they are, we are destined to spend eternity with billions and billions of other people. Worshiping in large groups is a good way of getting some practice at this." (Rolheiser)
The sole basis for real church community is gathering around the person of Christ and sharing his Spirit. The Christian Church contains such a radical mix of people! "Men, women, and children...of every description, ideology, background, temperament, taste, social standing, and religion...Liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and feminists, Promise Keepers and New Agers, priests and anti clerics, union presidents and bankers, animal rights activists and persons involved in the seal hunt, meat-eaters and vegetarians mingle with each other. Present is the president of the local pro-life association, but the president of pro-choice is also there....
"That is an image of the Christian church around Jesus Christ. Outside of a focus on his person and what we are drawn to spontaneously live when we sense his presence, we have angry fireworks and constant dissipation, as the state of our families, communities, nations, and world give ample testimony to. Nothing else, ultimately, holds us together....Living in his Spirit is defined in Scripture as charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity. Living in these virtues is what binds us into community in such a way that we are immune from separation by distance, temperament, race, color, gender, ideology, social status, history, creed, or even death. All who live in these virtues are one body with each other and constitute the church." (Rolheiser)
Living in church community helps us overcome our indifference and our individualism. Church community demands that there be a real sharing of our life together, through prayer, celebrating our rites of passage together, sharing our everyday joys, sorrows, and fears, celebrating our feasts together, being responsible to each other, open with each other, correcting and challenging each other. Church community, in essence, is being mutually accountable to each other for our lives. Community is the real antidote to the individualistic "me and Jesus" mentality, because it's what Jesus chose to do; it's what Jesus wanted; it's how Jesus himself lived. Jesus began church, with his community of followers. And, by being baptized, we're called to live in community.
"In the waters of Baptism we are reminded that we are not born in a vacuum, nor do we journey entirely alone (although loneliness is often part of the burden). Being reborn, being made alive, involves being born into a community. So there are strings attached to this adventure. Far from being the spiritual journey of the solitary individual in search of God, it drags a people, a church, a nation, the human race, along with it." (Alan Jones, "Journey into Christ)
Knowing that Jesus himself calls us to follow him and be filled with his Spirit as part of a community, forces us to confront one of the biggest spiritual decisions of our lives: do we walk away from Church, or do we try harder? Do we accept and share the lives of people who are radically different from ourselves? Do we pray for them, even if they espouse radically different ideas from ours? Do we work with them, even when they misunderstand, even dislike, us? It's what Jesus' followers did. And - It's the ONLY way we can expand our hearts and our vision. It is the only way we can forge unity out of diversity and develop a common heart and soul which withstands all differences and distances, even death. Being part of an apostolic church community is, in essence, the only way to WORK FOR PEACE AND UNDERSTANDING ON EARTH, AND PREPARE FOR HEAVEN!