An Ungodly Trend

September 24th, 2020

“I see a bad moon a-rising
I see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightnin’
I see bad times today

Don’t go ’round tonight
It’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise”

from Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Now that we have six months of the pandemic under our belts, it’s time to take stock of things. Where are we now? Where are we going?

Karin and I went out for coffee on Tuesday with a friend of ours who is a missionary for an Evangelical organization. He used to be very active in a local Bible-based church. Dan is back home for a couple weeks. Then he will return to his work in Germany. The three of us sat in the café and talked about religion. What else would we be talking about? The conversation drifted to the topic of church attendance during the pandemic.

The upshot of the discussion is that attendance at religious services currently varies from poor to non-existent. That seems to be across the board. Karin and I go to Mass at our Catholic parish three mornings per week. The number of people going to the weekday liturgies hasn’t changed much. Attendance at Sunday Mass seems to be much lower. It’s hard to tell, but there are Sunday mornings when the population looks to be half of what it was prior to the arrival of the virus.

Dan commented that the attendance at his old church is significantly less than before the pandemic. His religious community, Elmbrook Church, is a mega-church. It’s enormous. It has a parking lot that is big enough for a pilot to land a Cessna in an emergency. In the past, Elmbrook expected to see thousands of people at the Sunday services. Now, according to Dan, the church draws only several hundred every weekend. This is a bit disturbing to that congregation.

Non-Christian traditions are also struggling to maintain their communities. I belong, in an unofficial sort of way, to Lake Park Synagogue in Milwaukee. There hasn’t been a minyan assembled since early March. Last Sunday the rabbi invited members of the shul to meet outside the synagogue to hear him blow the shofar for Rosh Hashana. Everybody had masks and stayed six feet apart. That was the first time I saw some of my friends in 3D in almost half a year. The synagogue is closed for regular services, and there is no telling when they will resume.

Another example is the Great Lake Zen Center, where I have been going for meditation practice for the last fifteen years. We closed up shop. Last month we took everything out of the Zen Center and put it all into storage. There is no longer a physical location for the sangha to meet and sit together. We meditate using a Zoom format, which is really not much different than meditating alone. Will the Buddhist sangha find a new home and start practicing together again? Maybe. Who knows?

I used to go occasionally to the Sikh Temple. I stopped at the there this morning to meditate. It was my first visit to the temple since early in the spring. The place was practically empty. Back in the day, the temple would be quiet during the week, but there were always some old guys hanging around the office, watching Bollywood movies and hiding from their wives. Today there were just the two priests, and me.

I haven’t been to a mosque in months. My understanding is that they are open, but social distancing has cut back the attendance quite a bit. My Syrian friend, Hussein, told me a while ago that people had to make reservations for Friday services at his mosque. The bottom line is that some folks can’t worship in the mosque with everyone else. Before the pandemic, both the mosques and the Sikh Temple tended to be packed solid with people during their weekly prayer gatherings. That’s done. There are no more crowds in these places.

Will things change once there is a vaccine? Will people go back to their places of worship? I don’t know about that.

A couple weeks ago, I had a phone conversation with my old rabbi. He told me that, since the pandemic has stopped people from going to services at the synagogue, they have filled up that empty space in their schedule with other activities. Are these people going to jettison their new interests in order to return to the synagogue for prayers on Shabbat? Maybe. Maybe not.

I suspect the same thing is true for followers of other faith traditions. Some of the people who filled these houses of worship are not coming back. Ever. They are done with it, for a variety of reasons. Some of them won’t return because they are afraid of contracting the COVID virus, and they don’t care if there is a vaccine. They aren’t willing to take the risk. Some have simply lost interest in their practice. Some people came to religious services more for the sense of belonging that a community offers, than for the actual worship. The pandemic has destroyed much of that feeling of fellowship, and those folks who wanted it now have no compelling reason to stay with their tradition.

It is interesting to watch how different denominations are trying to luring members back into the fold. Our local Catholic prelate, Archbishop Listecki, has basically tried to strong-arm people back into the pews. He said that Catholics who continue to avoid going to Mass are in danger of committing a “grave sin”. Really? He also stated that fear of being infected by the COVID virus is not a good enough reason for missing Sunday Mass. Really? Since the archbishop made these comments, I have seen zero increase in participation at the liturgies.

A non-religious person might think to themselves, “Who cares? That doesn’t affect me.”

That might not be quite true. Religious communities often, but not always, contribute to the well being of the larger community. If these congregations collapse because of a lack of members, that will hurt the secular world in which we all live.

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