As part of the scary fringe of society that American liberals call “church-goers,” my family always checks out the local church before deciding to move to a new neighborhood.
We have some experience with this, having moved 11 times in 15 years. We’ve also changed churches without moving. If church shopping were a felony, I’d no longer be able to vote.
I am a ruthless church shopper, not because my family spends so much time in a sanctuary, but because we spend so little. I figure if we are going to spend only an hour or two each week in formal worship of the Almighty, it better be a quality hour, one with a challenging sermon, soaring music and no Game Boys in the next pew.
This is why we spent the better part of Lent shopping for a new church. The Game Boys did me in.
Here is how it began. A year ago, we had to move (again) and found a home we loved on two wooded acres in a charming New England town. As soon as we ditched the real-estate agent, we drove around, looking for confirmation that this was the right place for us. We found it: lots of runners and cyclists, smiling people walking Golden Retrievers, an old-fashioned town square, an occasional horse and rider, and — thanks be to God! — a gorgeous, grey-stone church just two miles from the house.
Now, I know there are many people who have meaningful religious experiences inside ugly churches, but I’m not one of them. I dislike modern structures that resemble gyms with crucifixes, with their rows of folding chairs. I want a church that looks like a church; the grander, the better. And this one looked the part. It was both majestic and simple, with stained glass befitting an anteroom of heaven. It was old. It was loved. Surely the people who worshiped within appreciated beauty and recognized its importance in the adoration of the Creator.
So, seduced by century-old stonework, I registered at the parish right away, skipping the month or two of church shopping that I usually put myself through. There was one Catholic church in this town — on Church Street, no less! — and we were going to be part of it. So, we moved, unpacked and, on the next Sunday, showed up for the 10 o’clock Mass and discovered we couldn’t all fit in the pew.
Now, as Catholic families go, with four kids, we’re hardly pushing the reproductive envelope. But, inexplicably, the pews at this church seat four adults comfortably, five snugly, and so somebody had to sit on a lap. Okay, we could deal with this, and even the kneelers designed by de Sade.
But, over the next few months, we discovered things we could not deal with, starting with the attire of our fellow worshipers.
Fleece and denim prevailed, with Spandex close behind. Washing appeared to be optional; ironing discouraged. Men collecting the offering wore T-shirts from their latest 5Ks. Whole families went to Communion in blue jeans with ragged edges that dragged on marble floor. Altar servers wore cowboy boots and Crocs.
For a while, some children were wearing Heelys in the fellowship hall, until the church posted a sign saying they were no longer allowed because they weren’t safe. WEREN’T SAFE? How about because they are disrespectful and inappropriate?
But we were new; I said nothing. These people may be dressed for a horse auction, but at least they were going to church. We would continue to dress up, believing that God (if not our neighbors) was deserving of our very best. More than once, someone would smile at my four-year-old, conspicuous in her smocked dress and polished shoes, and ask what was the special occasion was. “Uh….. Sunday?” I thought to myself, but kept quiet.
We kept going. The music, mediocre from the start, deteriorated. The church had a glorious organ, but the music was — how to put this kindly? — putrid. It was a bizarre mix of bad-old and bad-new, with too much synthesizing and background vocals that suspiciously sounded of recordings. The senior priest, frustrated, would wave his hands from the altar, trying to get mute people to sing.
But how could we? On a good day — say, Christmas — the music resembled “Up With People” without the people. Who wants to sing along with that?
We kept going, even as a sixth of the congregation would arrive after the Creed and a quarter would leave after Communion. We kept going, even though no one seemed to know when to kneel or to sit; the lector would hurry to the microphone to say “please stand.” We kept going, even though no one ever welcomed us to the parish or acknowledged the checks we wrote each month. We kept going, even as people carried on conversations, not only in the allegedly quiet time before the service starts, but even while the Mass was under way. We kept going, as the altar server read the prayer book while the priest delivered his homily, as cell phones rang during the Eucharistic prayer, when a teenager in front of us checked a text message during the offering.
But then two kids in the next pew played Game Boys while waiting for Mass to start.
We stopped going.
Now, I won’t exaggerate the offense. The children played the Game Boys with the sound turned off and they put them away when the Mass began. Their parents were nicely dressed, and the kids were well behaved. But how much can one get out of worship when the preceding moments involve electronic images of Yu-Gi-Oh! characters? What kind of people expect so little of their children? What kind of priest expects so little of his congregation?
The Second Vatican Council begat the “folk” Mass, which was sometimes called the “hootenanny” Mass in the 1960s. It was supposed to attract young people, with guitars and tambourines and weepy ballads only vaguely related to God. (In high school, I sang in a folk choir that once passed off the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as a communion song. McCartney’s lyrics referred to his biological mother, Mary, not the Virgin, but whatever.)
People dressed down for the folk Masses, usually celebrated on Saturday or Sunday evenings, and that was okay in that setting and at that time. But somewhere along the way, people got the idea that what’s fine and appropriate for 6 P.M. Saturday is acceptable at 10:30 A.M. Sunday, and in many churches, that’s where we are today: Torn blue jeans and untied hi-tops have become our Sunday best. Every service is a hootenanny now.
A church, like any organization, reflects its leader, so as much as I may admire the faith of men and women who surrender their earthly lives to God, I hold them responsible for cowboy boots on the altar. Of course the parents are responsible first. But if the parents don’t do their job, then the pastor must step in. And if the pastor doesn’t do his, the bishop must, and so forth. Pope Benedict seems to sense a truth: At this point in the Church’s life, a little formality will do us some good.
So bring on the Tridentine Mass, and the new missal language, vernacular be damned. Make use of kneelers, and candles and incense, and if the service needs to be longer than an hour, let it. If it’s worthwhile, who will object? Make demands of your congregants. Give them reason to come, with sermons that don’t insult their intelligence and music that won’t make them groan. Pay musicians and singers if you must. A meaningful worship experience requires mystery and awe and beauty, all of which are conspicuously absent in too many churches today.
Two-thirds of professed American Christians will attend an Easter service this week. By Pentecost, seven weeks from now, attendance will drop by more than a third, and pastors will bemoan the loss of the lily-and-poinsettia crowd. But the lilies will be gone, of course, and by May, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any choir presenting a soul-stirring rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” as my grandmother’s church does every Easter. We can’t all be at our best every day, of course, but our churches must strive to be at their best every Sunday — not just twice a year. Then, maybe we can recapture the meaning of the words “Sunday best” before the phrase slips into antiquity.
A postscript: Not long after the Game Boy incident, we learned that the senior pastor at this church was retiring. A new priest soon arrived, a young and enthusiastic man who sings the Eucharistic Prayer and, while friendly enough, seems the sort who might lay down some rules. He recently announced that the lector would no longer tell us when to stand — we would have to figure that out on our own! — and there has been incense on the altar of late. We are encouraged. We will give it another try. It is, after all, a pretty church, and convenient. We don’t have to arrive early to get a seat; usually, there are plenty of pews.
– Jennifer Graham is a writer and editor in the suburbs of Boston.