Commentary: The new fellowship
Depending on what you do on the morning of the first day or seventh day of the week, you might consider this a crisis. According to census figures, approximately 40 percent of Americans consider themselves church members. In Canada, the figure is 20 percent and in Europe, it's 8 percent or less.
But the answer depends on how the question is asked. When the question is do you attend church regularly (two times or more a month), the answer in the U.S. was 18 percent in 2002. The trend is definitely downward. Church membership dropped 10% in the 1980s and another 12 percent in the 1990s. From 1900 to 2000, 2.7 million church members fell into inactivity. Membership is declining while our population is growing.
The causes for this decline are generally assumed to be that some people are bored by religion while others feel it is not informative or relative to them. Some claim to be revolted by gossip or strife within the church, unfriendliness or over-emphasis on money. One reason never given is the lack of parking space in church parking lots.
Can this trend be reversed? Yes, but more ideas are more likely to come from sinners rather than saints. The slide will not be turned around by more power points, longer sermons, hymns with more verses, bagpipes, accordions, tubas, smoke, mirrors, credit cards or passing the plate twice.
Don't ask the choir for ideas — they're already attending. Ask those who aren't. Every Sunday morning in the fall, football fans are tailgating at Vikings football home games. They arrive hours before the game and start grilling and drinking immediately. It is a well-established ritual and folks tend to set up shop in the same places near the same people and make friends with the fans around them. And it works for baseball games, soccer and concerts, as well.
Aside from judging "sinfulness" (let's avoid being judgmental here), the same tailgating practices are taking place before high school and college football games with and without alcoholic beverages. The positive effect is the enjoyment of food, drink, companionship and sport.
You can see where this is heading can't you? What could possible go wrong if we encouraged tailgating without alcohol in the church parking lot before church services? There is nothing wrong in the usual coffee fellowship before or after church services, but tailgating could add a new dimension and be The New Fellowship.
The essence of organized religion and worship services would be unchanged. The message of faith, love and peace would not be watered down. In fact, it could be renewed with greater inspiration, passion and vigor.
It wouldn't work during the winter or bad weather, of course, any more than football tailgating works when the conditions make it impossible. But what we're talking about here is a new spirit of enthusiasm that can only be infectious — grabbing even the unbelievers or the slow-to-believe out there on the edges today.
I can see new specialty recipes and presentations developing, like the Martin Luther Casserole, Pope Francis Scalloped Potatoes, John Wesley Barbeque Ribs, John the Baptist Baked Beans, Peter the Fisherman Tuna Salad, and maybe even grilled Holy Mackerel.
Sometimes ideas coming from the bottom make more sense than those coming from the top. Sabbath tailgating could spark the biggest miracle since the feeding of the 5,000 with loaves and fishes.