Hansen: Churches try to save themselves

Early Easter morning at Alta Laguna Park, as the sun rose in the east, the plaintive sounds of Native American music floated among a group of about 20 people.

Pastor B.J. Beu of the Neighborhood Congregational Church played a flute while a drum kept the beat.

The ceremony included a "centering prayer," where the people faced the four directions with the invitation to "listen to the earth."

While it also had more traditional references to the meaning of Easter, the ceremony clearly was not your typical church service.

Which is the point.

Today's churches cannot survive on traditional services alone. In fact, with the aging baby boomers and lower attendance, many churches are already making changes.

Over the last 10 years, attendance has dropped between 10% to 20% at the major Protestant denominations, Episcopal, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Lewis Center for Church Leadership.

Mainline churches have a disproportionate percentage of people older than 65, and at the same time they have failed to reach a younger audience.

"I think part of the challenge we're going to face is that in the Christian church we have our little territories," said the Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Laguna.

Rechter fears that if churches hold on too tightly, they will lose mindshare.

"I think we're going to see some churches just closing down, frankly," she said. "I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen."

There is hope, Rechter said, believing that the structure and mission of many churches have started to change with the times by trying to instill confidence.

"It has a lot to do with authority," she said. "The church, the institutional church, is changing just like the rest of the culture. It's flattening. The hierarchy is flattening.

"As that happens, there's less authority given to one person, the head of the church, the rector, the preacher. In time we all have something to preach. We all have something to say."

It can be argued that this type of spiritual democracy is a byproduct of similar movements happening throughout the world. It is no longer about one way of seeing, believing or understanding our environment. It's multifaceted and dynamic.

For example, how many people now do yoga? It's almost in every strip mall. In fact, it's the fastest growing "sport" in the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal says that if you want a safe investment, start a yoga or Pilates studio. The point is, those same yoga practitioners are more likely to be younger, more educated and hold more worldly religious views, according to research.

Meanwhile, the Internet and instant collaboration have leveled the playing field for a global perspective. As we speak, Buddhist teens in Japan are playing Xbox Live with Baptist boys in Alabama.

Do you think they are arguing about religion? No.

"What I tend to look at and celebrate is, what do we have in common?" said Rechter. "And one thing that has opened up, especially since 9/11, is this respect for the faith traditions. So there is a lot more interfaith dialogue that's happened."

As a result of this shared sense of discovery, St. Mary's has started a year-long world religions class, where she invites other faiths and denominations to come and educate the audience.

"It expands our knowledge of God," she said. "[We are] trusting and respecting that others know something, and that's going to create a vibrant community."

If the church were a large business (and it is), then it has to act like a business in critical areas. Even though they may deal in eternal truths, churches have to adapt or die.

The realities of the new social imperatives cannot be ignored. People want something more than dusty robes and unfortunate news headlines.

"My feeling is that's going to strengthen us," Rechter said. "It's going to strengthen our understanding. That's not a bad thing for the church to be going through, unless you're afraid. And if you're afraid, then this isn't going to be a landscape that you're going to enjoy."

It is a joy, however, even for nonbelievers, to be on a hilltop in Laguna Beach, with the ocean on one side and the mountains on the other, listening to a pastor playing a flute.

It's a simple thing, regardless of creed, to hear the tribal tone that lands somewhere in your gut. They say the sound has been around from the beginning, long before there were denominations.

Maybe more of us should take up the flute.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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