One of the things that amazes me is how poorly attended the church services on special days in the Christian calendar. I am not talking about Christmas and Easter, they get enough publicity. Nor am I talking about the minuscule holidays like the feast of St. Briged of Kildare (which was February 1st) or the feast of the circumcision of Christ (which I am not sure why anyone would want to celebrate with a feast, and which has been overridden by New Years' Day -- although it does explain the use of alcoholic beverages as part of the celebration). What really amazes me, is that days like today -- Ash Wednesday -- or Holy Thursday and Good Friday aren't big draws.
These special services are among the most powerful in the Christian year. They have everything that the contemporary Christian seeks -- a strong appeal to one's emotions, an element of participation, music that is stirring, and the challenge to dig deep into our souls for that connection to God; and yet they only draw one-tenth of our Sunday crowd. I have a hard time believing that the other 90% are so shallow in their faith that they feel that one worship a week is enough. Nor am I willing to accept that these ancient rituals and stories no longer have meaning. A few years ago when The Passion of the Christ came out, people flocked to the theaters to witness it, as though it were a new thing. Yet every year, Good Friday provides a chance for us to hear the sacrificial story of Christ, and to contemplate its power in our lives. The story still carries power.
Nor is it because our culture is less spiritual than in the past. Those of the millenial generation increasingly say that they are spiritual but not religious, as if the two are different and disconnected. What that tells me is that the spiritual hunger is there, the desire for deep meaning and soul-feasting are there. I think there are two things at work here, one which is a misunderstanding of the spirituality of religion, and one which is the church's lack of focus and attention to detail on these days.
First, the misunderstanding. When the church provides the holidays which have spiritual power in its rawest form, people think of it as religious and not spiritual. Maybe I am wrong, but I think it has to do with one's view of tradition. Often the attitude is that if a practice is traditional, it comes from an impersonal organization, interested more in maintaining the institution and the old order, so people come to it with little expectation that it will affect them. It is religious, born of past generations, and has little to do with me. And when we come with that expectation, we close ourselves to the power of the practice.
To clear the misunderstanding, look not at the institution and the years of ritual, but look at the spiritual issue that the day addresses. Ash Wednesday struggles with our humanity; that is, our mortality and our need for forgiveness. These are issues that are at the core of our spirit, our fears, our questions. To hear again ashes to ashes, dust to dust; while contemplating a God who forgives and offers new life is a profound experience. If we come to the service with the expectation of examining our spirit, ready to cast away our past and leave with new resolve to do better; we will discover why the practice has been maintained for so long -- it moves religion from the institution to the individual heart.
The second thing that affects attendance at these days, is I think, the church's fault, and I include myself in this culpability. We don't put as much emphasis on them as we do our Sunday services. Nursery facilities are often not provided, there isn't a children's message or activity for the kids to participate in. The choir and the praise band don't sing. It is as though the pastor and the organist are the lone people involved. I am not sure if it is because we expect the power of the holy day to carry the service, or if we are such creatures of habit that we just don't think about it until it is too late. But whatever the reason, the church (including myself) needs to reevaluate its approach to these days.
It is time for us to emphasize the power and spirituality of the church experience, to help people see that the church puts as much effort into spirituality as it does into fund raising, and as much publicity for holy days as it does for its spaghetti suppers.