holidaybrunch11Just got back from Sunday morning brunch at one of our favorite little Eastie spots. It’s a wonderful little breakfast-lunch place that you’d never find by accident, because it’s in the middle of a working boat yard. You give your order to Wendy at a little walk-up window inside, grab a recycled cup for some self-service coffee, and sit down at a long, park bench-style table on stools.  It’s not uncommon to be elbow-to-elbow with two folks you’ve never met, which adds to the creative awesomeness of this place. (the photo shown is of the cafe’s Holiday brunch)

Anyway, today the spot was especially busy.  Tons of young couples, many with babies, poured in one after the other.  A few of them staked out several seats at the end of the long table, and we grabbed two seats near them.  While we read our Sunday Globe and ate our breakfast, more young couples, along with a few middle-aged or older folks, came in, some that we knew. Lots of smiles, food-talk, baby-holding, and picture-taking.

As this was taking place, we began to hear a curious word being thrown around as people filed in:


“We should light this candelabra … now we can start church.”

“Joe’s missing church? Tell him we missed him.”

“This restaurant could have a seating problem … we might have to start a church expansion committee.”

As we read and ate and overheard the conversations around us, we began to see that this group of maybe 15 or so met every (or most) Sunday(s) to eat and catch up and enjoy community — and they call it (perhaps facetiously) “church.”  What an interesting commentary on our culture’s view of “church.”  To me, it demonstrates a couple of things: 1) that for many Americans, weekly attendance at a formal religious institution makes little to no difference in their lives, so they just don’t do it. All the statistics — about church decline, etc — support this. An article I read a few years ago described the “unchurched” culture in Seattle, where many prefer to take the family and dog to a park or go out to eat with friends instead of attending church.  2) that regular table fellowship / check-in time / community is still important to many Americans, just not in the context of formal religious institutions.

To be honest, this describes us.

This phenomenon has untold implications on the future of religious expression and activity in America.  Our culture’s “third places” (coffee shops, cafes, cigar bars, parks, etc) are America’s new “churches”.  We could lament this phenomenon and wish it were different, but I’m not sure it’s a bad thing (in fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing).

What are the implications?  What is the role of Christians in all of this?  Have the terms “churched” and “unchurched” outlived their usefulness?


8 responses to this post.

  1. “Churched” and “unchurched” are terrible words. They have hints of exclusiveness. Like club members and non-members.

    I’m starting to hit on the church subject again. May write on it soon.

    As our kids grow older, visit “church” with their visiting grandmothers and etc, we try to figure out where we are meant to be within all of that.

    We still have some semblance of church in our neighborhood at Obi-Wan’s (which has been at the hospital for the last 2 months).

    I would love to meet with some small group somewhere on a regular basis – with some practical/serving aspect to it…


  2. Hey Steve…it’s Kate (obviously)

    I don’t usually comment but having worked at a church (that’s experiencing a steep decline in membership) last year, your post made me wonder, is it really that “weekly attendance at a formal religious institution makes little to no difference in their lives, so they just don’t do it” or is it that the over-scheduled lives we all have these days make us prioritize time to such an extent that it doesn’t make the cut. For instance, it has meaning and importance, but where so many are working multiple jobs, or having to carry their work into nights and weekends to make sure that they don’t lost their jobs (or just because they can be contacted 24/7), for those parents that have to take their kids to soccer or birthday parties or playdates on Saturdays, that a free, empty day is too much of a time commodity to be scheduled out too, even if it’s for something that does hold meaning to you? Sometimes a formal religious service really just can’t trump sleep. Because faith, as you say yourself, doesn’t strictly need to occur in a particular place at a particular time whereas the jobs and school do.

    When I read your story I was thinking that the references to church sounded sort of like a self-conscience acknowledgment that they “should” be somewhere they are not (like guiltily cutting class and then talking about it). At least there is still a connection in their minds between Sunday and church…

    Anyway…just a thought from someone who doesn’t know much about this stuff and who is sitting home catching up on chores this particular Sunday because it really is the first time in a long while I’ve had a day free of obligations.


  3. Posted by Pam on January 26, 2009 at 2:36 am

    I think you’re right in pointing out there is a natural desire in us for fellowship/community/sharing life with others. However, I also think there is a difference in just a gathering of people to talk about food, family, work, etc. and what we coin “church” in a gathering of people that are all getting together to not only share life, but worship Jesus, and proclaim Him as Lord together. There is a difference between just talking about how your mom is having a hard time finding a job, whatever, and in sharing that news with someone who then prays for you and encourages you with promises from God’s Word. That’s not to say that one is “church” and the other nothing close to it. I think we can be at these more casual meetings and bring those prayers and encouragements to the people we’re with, no matter what their current relationship with God is.


  4. i love the two main points you bring up steve!

    the first, that “for many Americans, weekly attendance at a formal religious institution makes little to no difference in their lives, so they just don’t do it.” deserves more thought. i mean really? it “makes little or no difference in their lives”???

    statistics aside, if it was making a difference, it wouldn’t get scheduled out, would it? why isn’t the “church” making a difference in people’s lives?

    and the second point is equally worthy of more attention… “regular table fellowship / check-in time / community is still important to many Americans, just not in the context of formal religious institutions.

    what is it about formal religious institutions that pushes people to meet these needs in other contexts?

    it’s easy to resort to defensiveness about the church and lay the blame for these trends at the feet of those who aren’t showing up…

    but i’m wondering if we don’t need to think a little more seriously about the “church’s” role in this phenomenon.

    i think at least part of the process needs to involve a definition (or perhaps a redefinition) of the word “worship.”

    just some thoughts…



  5. Thanks for the thoughts, folks. As always, they are diverse, kind, and ultimately, helpful to the conversation.

    I’ll try to address the specific challenges or questions posed.

    – Agent B touches on a key question in all of this: How do kids factor in? How do parents raise kids that are as committed to the mission of God as anything else in life? What kinds of settings do they expose their children to? Etc. That would be interesting to ponder further.

    – Kate – Hello, friend. You raise good questions: What if these people want to be at church, but they’re simply too busy? What if calling brunch “church” is a way to feel better about not being there? (reading into your comment a bit, maybe)

    I think you may be onto something in suggesting busy-ness is most people’s primary reason for not being at church. But I also have a hunch that if they thought there was anything to be gained by attending, they’d be there. That’s how these young families are in our neighborhood … they expose their kids to anything and everything that might help them grow up in the right way. Mommy’s groups, organic diets, the best schools, summer camps … But why not church?

    I’m going to agree with Miller in saying that we — the “church” — don’t really give our neighbors much to attract them to such rhythms. What’s more, so many in “the church” are too busy with church activities and hanging out with other Christians that we fail to even notice those who are “off the map.”

    As I was walking Damon just now, the following sentence came to me:

    “While we are at church, many of our neighbors are enjoying a festive, redemptive brunch together. And we have no idea.”

    – Pam – As usual, I have little to challenge in your comment. What you said is right on! I want to be clear, though, that what I am describing in this post is not God’s perfect intent for a gathering of his people (the church), but an interesting cultural phenomenon that is occurring among those who most of us wouldn’t categorize as “churched.” Turns out, for many of those outside of Christian circles, the activities that prove to be most redemptive actually look a whole lot like what faith communities down through the ages have looked like: sharing meals, carrying each other’s burdens, practicing justice, sharing what they own, etc.

    Now, my question is why would we drag folks like that out of such a setting so they could “go to church”? What would it look like for us to join and affirm those gatherings instead of wishing they were somewhere else?

    [important disclaimer: I think every follower of Jesus needs a family around him or her with which to laugh, cry, pray, eat, and share life. The history books call this “the church.”]

    – Ahh, Miller – Love your thoughts. Pertaining to your questions:

    “… makes little to no difference in their lives.”

    I would say that for most outside of organized religion, regular Sunday services make no difference in their lives. I should say “not attending” regular Sunday services. Because let’s be real, people — we’re not mainly concerned with getting people to come to some meeting, are we? Was that Jesus’ main objective? Or was/is it a complete life re-orientation away from our dominant culture and to the ways of God? Sometimes I can’t tell what’s more important to Christians: dragging people over to “our side” (our meeting, our building, our doctrine, etc) or seeing people deny the self and turn to God and others. “Do unto others.” As you’ve told me, Miller, this sums up the law and the prophets. Really? I mean, really??

    Your second question is interesting as well. “What is it about formal religious institutions that pushes people to meet these needs in other contexts?” I think I addressed this above, but it’s the idea that these institutions are of little to no practical value to everyday life. I think it was Shane Claiborne who said something to this effect: “We’re trying to convince people that there’s life after death. Most people just want to know if there’s life before death.” That, and the fact that our churches reflect more the values of the host culture than God’s.

    Worship. Hmm. The Psalms come to my mind. But so does Romans 12:1. And James 1:27. The Book of Amos is pertinent as well. However much worship may be about singing Chris Tomlin songs to God, we’d also better pay attention to what else God thinks it is … and isn’t.

    But what do I know.

    I would love to hear others’ comments, rebuttals, or questions on all this…


  6. Literally seconds after I pressed submit on my comment, I read — and was convicted by — this post. Here it is in its entirety:

    Len Sweet talks about the passing of the Jeopardy churches: churches that think their job is to answer every question. (I guess more precisely to match the show, they provide the exact question to fit every answer!)

    Most people aren’t dying to be with people who think they know everything. It’s much more exciting to be on a journey — where everyone’s insights and everyone’s experiences are valued and then considered through interaction and discernment.

    People don’t need to be given a thousand answers. They need to be invited to follow the One who is himself the Answer/the Way. They need to be invited to a life that is other than self-obsession, self-preoccupation, and self-preservation.

    The way of the cross. That is the answer.

    Sorry for the length of the comment above. I was probably trying too hard to “give an answer.” For a lot of this, the answer isn’t black-and-white, but another question: “Is there life there?”


  7. Posted by thepriesthood on January 27, 2009 at 4:25 am

    To jump in and speak to your questions, which I always appreciate.

    What if the role of Christians is not to bring the Christ into other spaces and communities (as if God is not present and active there), but in the right context, to name the Christ there, and make oneself available to help that community understand and appreciate that presence on a deeper level?

    As for the words churched and unchurched, they were misdirected from the beginning–very Christendom-ish. Enculturating people OUT of the world and INTO a religious subculture was never the intention of Jesus, if I am reading his stories correctly.

    Thanks for the thoughtful, insightful post.


  8. You mean we Christians don’t hold the corner on the “God stuff?”

    You mean gospelish things can be lived out by non-Christians in non-Christian places? And that we should affirm that?

    Priest, those are radical ideas for most of us. We don’t take well to your kind ’round here.

    Seriously, you basically said in 50 words what I attempted to say (and probably failed) in 400 words. Great thoughts.

    I want to hear from someone who isn’t all-the-way sold on what Priesthood is suggesting. What are your concerns? Possible traps?

    This is good.


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