Where has religion gone?

Church in the woods

When I was growing up, Sunday morning found me in church. With my parents. In the second pew from the front, right aisle. Period!

Actually, Sunday school, which took place in the church basement, preceded the service. But once upstairs, I was seated between my dad and mother — he, who unfailingly wore a suit, vest and tie, and she, a hat, gloves and “good” dress. I sat fidgeting, also in a “good” dress — they were always uncomfortable — with a nickel knotted inside my hanky, ready for the offering plate.

We were Norwegian Lutheran. We also had a Swedish Lutheran and a German Lutheran church in our small southwestern Minnesota town. Our pastor was a stern-looking man with a bristly black mustache, who usually delivered an equally stern sermon.

Our church, built early in the century, featured magnificent stained-glass windows on each side and an upper balcony in the rear. A pipe organ, played by the minister’s daughter, made the hymns we sang seem truly holy, reverent.

Sunday was set aside for church then, in the 1940s and ’50s. Attendance was sacrosanct. Inviolable. But when I reached my teens, I began to chafe. Sunday evenings often were filled with Luther League activities. Saturday mornings were spent in confirmation training, which meant even more church during the weekend.

When I left home at age 18, I found myself resisting attending church services. The overkill of those teen years was taking its toll. Even now, I don’t look back on them with fondness. Nevertheless, I appreciate what they did for me — beyond their intended purpose of nurturing my spirituality.

Even though my era was sans drugs — drinking and smoking were our big temptations — as teenage kids we needed an anchor, simply because we were stuck in that confusing time between childhood and adulthood. Church provided that anchor. The lessons learned there were positive: Love thy neighbor, respect thy parents, do good works, walk humbly with your God.

Our mandatory church attendance made good practice for future career discipline. The seriousness of the sermons and their solemnity set the stage for dealing with life’s inevitable and sometimes unsolvable problems.

When I read about how church membership is declining in our country today, I feel sad. The valuable life lessons I learned there are something many children today — including some in my own family — are missing out on.

But the tables have indeed turned. Most mainline Christian denominations are facing unprecedented declines. Many churches are closing for good, including the tiny ones that dot the country hills and vales of my home territory, like the one founded by my immigrant ancestors.

This humble white structure with the tall Norwegian steeple is set in the peaceful agricultural region of Minnesota that those sturdy pioneers farmed. A pasture flanks one side; a grove with a small stream running past it, the other. My mother was baptized, confirmed and married there. Her forebears and siblings are buried in the grounds. Its closing sadly symbolizes a way of life now fading.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Send comments and questions to [email protected].