Here’s something I hear from time to time: “I’d like to join the Orthodox Church, but I visited a local church and it just felt dead.”
When I hear this it’s about Orthodox churches, but that needn’t be the case. It could be any church or denomination; it might sound good on paper, but the local church on Sunday morning feels empty and drained.
It’s tempting to say, “That shouldn’t make any difference. Focus on your own prayer life.” But, actually, I know what these people mean. Sometimes, when you visit a church, something just feels “off.” It makes you really eager to get out of there.
I’ve puzzled over what this is, exactly. It seems like, anywhere the same people gather regularly—a school, an office, a church—a hard-to-define quality develops, an atmosphere or a mood. Even though I know that quality or mood shouldn’t affect me, it does. I can’t just ignore it.
The first impulse, when that happens, is to get out of there, and look for a church that feels more alive. But there’s another possibility: a “dead” church can be revived. There are things you can do to bring a church, of whatever denomination, to life.
Go back to that moment when you were looking around the congregation and feeling dismayed. It’s been said that 20 per cent of the people in a church do 80 per cent of the work. When you first visit a church, most of what you see will naturally be that 80 per cent. It seems like they aren’t really engaged with worship; maybe, you think, they’re there for social reasons, or just out of habit.
But the 20 per cent whose faith is strong, the ones who pray and read the Bible, who sincerely seek the Lord—they’re there too; they’re just not as visible. In every congregation, there is a hidden “starter set” of committed people. Your task is to find them, band together with them, and begin to fan the flame. You’ll find, no doubt, that the pastor is on your side. A pastor’s life isn’t easy, and it doesn’t pay well, either. People take up the calling despite this because they sincerely want to help others deepen and strengthen their faith. If things feel “off” in church, if there’s a vacant feeling, a rattling-around chill, it not because that’s how the pastor likes it. So, if you want to understand this church, listen to him. He knows the people in the congregation better than anyone else does, and he knows what prayer groups or book studies have been effective in the past.
Now, where are you going to find these more-committed people? One place is mid-week services. People who take the trouble to go to church when it isn’t Sunday morning probably have a motivation similar to yours. Say you notice somebody who comes regularly to mid-week services, or arrives early on Sundays and stays late, or carries a well-worn Bible (or prayer rope, in an Orthodox church)—any kind of tip-off. Take the initiative and make contact. On Sunday, look around for them during coffee hour, and go over and start a conversation. Find out if you are reading the same books, or mention something in worship that you found meaningful. Build bridges.
This next part might be shocking, so brace yourself: these people might not be the same age you are. They might not dress in ways you find attractive. They might not read as much as you do, or not read the same things. If you walk with them to their car, you might see a bumper-sticker you don’t like. Don’t let these things throw you off. As you become fond of someone, the very things that were initially off-putting can transform and become endearing.
It’s likely that some of these people will literally be little old ladies. That’s OK. Someone who’s had decades of experience with prayer might be just what you need in your life right now. Also, sometimes old ladies turn out to be interesting. I know because I am one.
If you attend a liturgical church, you can also remind yourself that, even if the church’s atmosphere dismays you, you are still receiving communion. The Prophet Elijah, alone in the wilderness, was sustained by ravens who brought him bread. In the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Spirit gives you the Bread of Life; ultimately, that’s all you need.
Remember also that bitter, discouraged Elijah was less alone than he thought he was. He complained that he was the only faithful person remaining in the land, and the Lord revealed that there were another 7000 who had never abandoned the faith.
Here’s another practical suggestion: Pray through the church directory, a page or two every day. When you get to the end, start over. Invite your church-friends to do the same, praying for each person by name. Don’t pray for God to change them; just call them to mind, remembering them, as St. Paul did (“I remember you constantly in my prayers,” 2 Timothy 1:3; “I remember you in my prayers,” Philemon 1:4). Just lift them up before the Lord; the Lord knows better than you do what they need.
If you know of specific needs, for healing perhaps, of course you can include those requests. Let the pastor know that you and your friends are glad to pray for any needs he thinks it right to share.
This habit of praying through the directory has the practical benefit of teaching you the names of everyone in the church. It will help you remember who’s married to whom, which kids go with which families, and so on.
In time, this habit of praying for all the congregation by name will change something inside of you. The worshipers will stop seeming like a mass of indistinguishable faces. They will be revealed instead as what they always were: unique individuals, each of whom is thoroughly known and loved by Christ. The congregation is not a block of stone but a mosaic, composed of countless faces.
That’s so often the way with spiritual growth: you realize something was true all the time. Christ was already present, already working in these lives, long before you walked in the door. He was already loving them and calling them into a closer relationship with himself. And, fortunately, they’re people who are already in the habit of coming to church. A line in a hymn, a scripture reading, a sermon illustration, may be just the spark they need. Your role is to pray.
There probably are more prayerful and faithful people in the congregation than you’ve been able to see. Superficial factors, like clothing and age, may be rendering them invisible to you. In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil teaches a young devil how to corrupt his “patient.” Although the young man in question has started going to church, it’s not necessarily a lost cause, because of his preconceptions about what the Church should look like.
When he gets to his pew and looks round him, he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.
It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on [God the Father’s] side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to [the Devil], is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
As time passes, and church members who are prayerful and intentional find each other, a kind of chemical change takes place. They find that they constitute a living community within the congregation. They sense that they are upheld by each other’s prayers. When they come to worship, the do so prepared to love and serve God.
A quality of warmth and illumination accompanies them, and it begins to pervade worship. This is something others can sense—even those people you’d written off. Christ is Life, and everyone seeks life. The warmth of faith is attractive in the sense that a magnet is attractive, and it draws people forward. You are moving toward a tipping point, in which the Light of Christ becomes so perceptible that the feeling of worship on Sunday morning is transformed.
If you think a congregation is “dead,” your only option is not to go somewhere else. Where Christ is, there is resurrection. By finding and befriending other church members who are spiritually strong, by following the pastor’s vision, and by giving prayer support to the work God is already doing in worshippers’ lives, you can help bring a congregation to life.