Fleming Rutledge–Another church is closed. Why?

This is happening all over New England. Church buildings everywhere have become community centers, art galleries and studios, antique shops, private residences. The saddest part of it all is that only a tiny fraction of the members of those congregations join other churches. Most of them stop going to church altogether. The loss of the memories is too painful. “I was baptized in that church, I was married in that church, I had always expected to be buried from that church.” There is an idolatry of church buildings, no question about that. I have been reading a history of the first two centuries of Christianity and it is hard not to conclude that there was great strength in those early congregations which had no buildings to meet in but were on fire with the good news of Jesus Christ the Lord. Yet today, when there are empty church buildings all over, it is easy for observers to conclude that faith is dead, that Christian worship has become irrelevant.

All of this has led me to reflect on a factor that has been bothering me for some years now. It is a pretty well-established fact that the most important factor in getting people to come to church and stay there is social. “Someone invited me.” “I was shown in to the coffee hour and introduced to people.” “People were friendly to me.” This is so obvious that it should be addressed with the highest priority in all congregations. I can speak with some authority on this, because I have attended Sunday worship virtually every Sunday of my adult life somewhere, from Hawaii to Washington state to Florida to Minnesota to Maine–literally–and it is very rare for anyone even to acknowledge my presence, let alone escort me to coffee hour. I can name on fewer than ten fingers the number of churches where I have received a friendly greeting. Literally. It’s easy to remember them because they were so few. Only one of them was an Episcopal church. Most recently, this past spring, Dick and I were amazed by the friendliness and vitality of the American (Protestant) Church in Paris. It made me want to join immediately. In contrast, I found the American Episcopal Church in Rome (St Paul’s Within the Walls) to be singularly unfriendly even though I attended for three consecutive Sundays. Passing the peace has had no effect on this problem. I pass the peace to all my neighbors around me in the pews, and as soon as the service is over they immediately turn away from me as if to get out of the pew as fast as possible.

And that little Baptist church? No one knew that I was an ordained minister. No one knew anything about me at all. I was just an ordinary person who was visiting, a potential new member perhaps. I must have been reasonably conspicuous as a newcomer among 20 people, all of whom knew each other well. I attended services there at least 15 times. I introduced myself, spoke pleasantly to people, praised the service. Did anyone ever make an effort to get to know me? No.

Read it all.


Posted in * Christian Life / Church Life, * Culture-Watch, Evangelism and Church Growth, Ministry of the Laity, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry, Pastoral Care, Pastoral Theology, Psychology, Theology

17 comments on “Fleming Rutledge–Another church is closed. Why?

  1. MichaelA says:

    If Ms Rutledge wants to tell herself that the reason churches are closing is essentially social, then let her think that.

  2. Katherine says:

    It’s “a” reason, MichaelA, not “the” reason. I can’t count the number of ECUSA churches around the country in which I have been ignored. The “passing of the peace” makes the unwelcoming attitude even more obvious. They may have wished me peace, but they didn’t want to talk to me after the final prayer. I have stood in coffee hours, cup in hand, waiting in vain for people to come shake my free hand and say something. It isn’t, I’ll agree, the essence of the faith, but it is very off-putting.

  3. MichaelA says:

    Hi Katherine, I guess that depends on whether one sees a widespread lack of welcoming as being a cause, or a symptom of something else.

  4. Pb says:

    Agree. The article presumes some quick fix for a systemic problem. Just get some extroverts doing what extroverts do. How much better to get many lay people to exercise their unused giftedness in all areas of the body of Christ? Growing churches do this.

  5. Jeremy Bonner says:

    It’s interesting how people can come away with completely dfferent readings of the same text. πŸ™‚

    I took this much more as a commentary on how mainline Protestant (and some Catholic) communities in the Global North – liberal and conservative – have suffered from a growing tendency to focus on themselves rather than the world beyond. She’s not talking about actively missional groups (though even they would presumably have no quarrel with what she has to say about identifying those with the gift of making others welcome – it is rarer than one might wish).

    I also didn’t get the impression that she thought this was the [i]only[/i] problem.

  6. Jeremy Bonner says:

    Pb (#4)

    In my experience, it’s not necessarily a ministry for extroverts. Certain examples from Acts come to mind.

  7. MichaelA says:

    I don’t think she said it was the only problem, but the doctrinal issue is entirely missing from her article. And if I saw a church with this sort of problem, the first thing I would be asking is: what is being taught here? Because sooner or later, what we do follows what we believe.

    Ms Rutledge belongs to a church that openly teaches and tolerates apostasy. If she wants to spend time curing an unwelcoming attitude she will only be providing topical treatment to a symptom.

  8. Catholic Mom says:

    Um…the vast majority of Catholic churches don’t have “coffee hour” at all. If you want to meet people, volunteer to do something, join some group, or come for some event other than mass. Otherwise people are going to leave you alone. We tend to think of that as a feature, not a bug.

  9. Sarah1 says:

    I was also surprised at the article and have to agree with the sentiments of Catholic Mom [i][sob!][/i].

    I don’t think that every single article about church closings *has* to mention as a totem the fact that most of the closing mainline churches no longer believe or promote the Gospel. After all, there are other cultural issues that are contributing to church closings when churches *do* believe and promote the Gospel.

    As nearly as I can tell from Rutledge’s writings she has [wrongly, I think] chosen to ignore the conflict over human sexuality entirely; this is a huge mistake and wrong but the entirety of her teaching is Gospel-centered and excellent, [though again she, contrary to Luther’s wise advice, seems to have determined that this cultural sin [sin that springs up and is accepted by culture and then the church in complicity] is not worth fighting over.]

    So I ignored the bit about her not mentioning the fact that so many Episcopal clergy and bishops — masses and masses of them — neither believe nor promote the Gospel and don’t share my faith.

    Turning to hospitality, I do think that churches don’t really use that gift very much. I’m one of the few in my parish who promptly turns to the obvious visitors in the pew, introduces myself, and welcomes them.

    But at the same time, I relish being Left Alone at worship, and would not like to be jollied up by Welcomers anyway. When I first visited — more than 20 years ago — I was thrilled at the anonymity for quite a long time, and then when I decided to get to know people at the church — after several years — I joined a small group, visited with one of the clergy, and proceeded on from there. Being left alone is a feature. So then the question only becomes — among which visitors is being Left Alone *not* a feature.

    It’s tough to figure that out and requires a lot of flexibility and intuition — and that’s why I expect so many just don’t bother. They assume that everybody wishes to be Left Alone and trundle forward.

  10. Catholic Mom says:

    I’ve told this story before but one Sunday we had a visiting priest saying mass and I don’t remember the whole shtick but he was decrying the anonymity and lack of connection between people today and at the end of mass he stated that he had installed “huggers” at the back doors that were going to give everybody a hug on the way out. His comment about it was: “If you’re Irish and you don’t like being hugged, pretend you’re Italian. If you’re Italian and you don’t like being hugged, there’s no hope for you.” I’m Irish and I went out the side door. We have not seen him since. πŸ™‚

  11. Katherine says:

    With reference to the hospitality issue only, I also prefer the “leave me alone until I’m ready” approach. However, when parishes insist upon the elaborate “passing of the peace,” complete with people wandering around hugging their friends, and after the service is over visitors don’t get even a handshake and a pleasant word, the contrast can be painful.

  12. Catholic Mom says:


    All Catholic churches have a “peace” but I have never seen people wandering around (or actually moving from their spot) hugging their friends. Or actually hugging anybody except for occasionally their kids (or even less occasionally their spouse). Handshakes are pretty much it. After mass everybody vacates fairly pronto because there is another mass already coming in. (We have two on Saturday night and three on Sunday). And, of course, they don’t want to get blocked in in the parking lot. In fact, the biggest problem is actually keeping people from sneaking out early. [My favorite in that regard was a sign hanging over the back door that I saw in one church that said “Remember, the first person to leave right after communion was Judas.” I admit to having done this on a few occasions and all I can tell you is that getting out the door inconspicuously is an art form I have never fully mastered. You sort of glide by the door right after receiving like you’re going back to your pew (only holding your purse) and then in a blink you’re just not there any more. πŸ™‚ ]

    On the other hand, we have a million groups (Bible study groups, women’s groups, men’s groups, divorce recovery, singles, college kids, you name it) and that is a good place to meet people if you want to.

    I think you should check out a Catholic church some Sunday and see if you feel more comfortable. πŸ™‚ If you do, you could join some group (like, I don’t know, say RCIA) to get to know more people.

  13. Katherine says:

    πŸ™‚ Catholic Mom, given that the RCIA class I attended in the late 1980s was taught by a priest who was a great admirer of Matthew Fox, I have to report that the experiment was a failure.

    I attended a few Catholic masses in India. It was in English, and at least I could pray with them. At the peace, they turned to neighbors, hands chest-high, palms together, and bowed politely. Lovely.

  14. Catholic Mom says:

    [blockquote] Catholic Mom, given that the RCIA class I attended in the late 1980s was taught by a priest who was a great admirer of Matthew Fox, I have to report that the experiment was a
    failure. [/blockquote]
    Well, considering that Fox was basically kicked out of the church, I think you can assume that he does not have a lot of “great admirers” left. I have never met one. Possibly the priest is not around anymore either. We have, over the years, been involved with CCD materials in three different parishes and they were all exceedingly orthodox. Perhaps even excessively dogmatic considering the audience. I would assume the RCIA materials were the same.
    [blockquote] I attended a few Catholic masses in India. …At the peace, they turned to neighbors, hands chest-high, palms together, and bowed politely. [/blockquote]

    I am moving to India! Or maybe (more realistically) I can find a parish with an Indian priest who might encourage this?

  15. Sarah1 says:

    RE: “I think you can assume that he does not have a lot of Ò€œgreat admirersÒ€ left.”

    I wouldn’t make that assumption.


  16. Katherine says:

    No, no, Catholic Mom, don’t move to India. Take my word for it.

  17. Catholic Mom says:

    Correction: He appears to have some admirers (or did as of two years ago) in Berea, KY, after having been soundly kicked by Pope Benedict. Please note: There are people who call themselves “progressive catholics” who are under the impression that they are either ordained women or that they have the power to ordain women and every so often they call in the press to demonstrate it. This does not mean that a wave of women’s ordination is sweeping the Catholic Church, contrary to what the press writes. (“Woman Ordained to Catholic Priesthood on Saturday!”) Likewise there are “progressive Catholics” who believe and do all kinds of things that are reported avidly by the press.

    I have never lived in a town in my entire life that was not solidly blue in a solidly blue state. And I have yet to encounter the “progressive rot” we are constantly told is just on the verge of doing to the Catholic Church was it did to the Episcopal Church. In fact, I have known a couple parishes that I would call downright reactionary. I’m thinking, for example, of the time I was visiting a church I had never attended and had my hand slapped by a priest for reaching for the host when he held it up (as we did as my home church) instead of waiting for him to lay it in my hand or put it in my mouth.

    Katherine — not much chance of my moving to India, although I am considering moving to Rhode Island someday. I would imagine they are not very much alike. πŸ™‚