Deirdre Curle's journey of becoming acquainted with her church neighbors on Fourth Sundays.
In the summer of 2015, a good friend from Puerto Rico was visiting for a week, and I invited her to come to Union with me. Although my friend was warmly greeted by several of you, she was taken aback by the calm casualness of our church – people walking around in shorts and sandals, sipping lattes, quietly singing along with our mellow worship songs. When I asked her what she thought of our church, she commented on how low-key we were compared to churches in Puerto Rico. Then she paused and said, “You know, you guys should check out other churches and see how they do things.”
I can’t help but wonder what we could do if we all came together as the church. Perhaps meeting our church neighbors is the first step.
After my friend left, I thought about what she said. I’ve attended Union for seven years, and University Presbyterian for ten years before that. But I’d never visited any of my Beacon Hill/Georgetown neighborhood churches. I decided to use our fourth Sundays to meet my neighbors. Here’s what I’ve learned and experienced so far:
Every church I've visited has welcomed me warmly, many times literally embracing me. Even when I looked different from them. Even when I did not speak their language. People have shown me the love of God and have made me feel like their sister in Christ. They’ve invited me to stay for lunch, attend fund-raising teas, and even join their worship band. All have encouraged me to return.
Most of the people who attend church in my neighborhood don’t actually live in my neighborhood. Much like our Union congregation, many people commute to their churches. People drive to their places of worship in my south Seattle neighborhood from Burien, Renton, Redmond, and Lake City. It seems that once people find a church they like, they’re willing to travel quite a ways to get there.
The ways to praise God through music are limitless. As a musician, it has been absolutely fascinating to see how different churches present musical worship. A Ukrainian Orthodox church I visited had no instruments at all. Instead, an a capella choir led the congregation in singing four-part harmony. An African-American church I visited joyfully sang songs for over an hour with a lively and incredibly talented band and choir – altogether, they made up about half the congregation. And one church had no live music at all – they sang along with a recording of Hill Song. It was inspiring to see how each church found different ways to glorify God through music.
Child participation in church differs. Most churches have Sunday school programs for young children. But in others, children stay with their parents during the service. One church I attended was celebrating Youth Sunday. On this particular day, children played in the band, sang in the choir, passed out the offering plates, read the scriptures, and read the announcements – in essence, did everything but preach the sermon. At the luncheon afterwards, they helped serve the food. I thought this was a wonderful way to prepare children for active engagement in their church and community.
Church attendance is in decline. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (2015), more than half of all American congregations have less than 100 people in attendance. And according to Gallup (2012), Washington is one of the least religious states. These trends were painfully evident in the churches of my neighborhood. As enthusiastic as they were, most of the churches had attendance of less than 50. One church I visited about a year ago had only about 20 people. I visited them again last month, and they were down to 11, including myself. A quick Google search will yield numerous articles on declining church attendance, citing reasons such as people’s busy schedules, changing societal values, and lack of interest among Millennials. Sadly, many small churches in Seattle now face difficult questions about their financial viability and their relevance in the community.
There is great potential for us to be the church together. The Greek word for church is ecclesia, which refers not to buildings, but to the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22; Ephesians 5:25, 32). Visiting other congregations has given me the opportunity to share what we do at Union, and learn about how others are living out their faith. I can’t help but wonder what we could do if we all came together as the church. Perhaps meeting our church neighbors is the first step.