I’ve been thinking a lot about church. What is church? What is the main purpose of church? Why do we continue to go to church in this age of skepticism and unbelief? And then there is this troubling question: Is the church dying, as statistics seem to indicate, truly fading, declining in influence, becoming a kind of curiosity to our society? We find ourselves scratching our heads about where church is headed. Sometimes we are deeply troubled.

While some of the statistics on decline need more nuance, still, if folks are going to church, their loyalty to one church or one denomination runs skin deep. People pick up and leave at the first hint of dissatisfaction. They go to another church. They may decide Starbucks is more appealing. I suppose this is one of those unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation—no mother church to hold us together, what’s to keep us from cutting and running? We seem plagued by anti-institutionalism of all sorts; we suffer from excessive individualism. These strong forces don’t provide much promise for the future of church.

I ran into a poem recently that continues to haunt me. It is called “Church Going,” written in 1955 by the mid-twentieth century English poet Philip Larkin. The poet wants us to know he is a sophisticated intellectual and he moves with the crowd that is pretty skeptical about church in our day.

As the story opens, the narrator is taking a bike ride out in the country. He comes upon a church. He is curious about what this church might stand for anymore. He seems just as curious, though, about his own lingering curiosity. Why does he care at all?

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on

I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Another church: matting, seats, and stone,

And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut

For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff

Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;

And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,

Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off

My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Why any kind of reverence? The observer clearly thinks church is aging, declining, grown a little musty, actually filled with “unignorable silence.” Not a pretty picture for the future of church.

But the poet can’t quite shake off the attraction of church.

Back at the door

I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,

Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

And yet, and yet, he continues to reflect,

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,

And always end much at a loss like this,

Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,

When churches will fall completely out of use

What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep

A few cathedrals chronically on show,

Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,

And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

Free rent for “rain and sheep”? Perhaps it has come to this because church has not kept up with the times, ceased offering answers to peoples’ deepest questions? Or maybe people simply no longer ask the kinds of questions the church was equipped to answer? The tone here is somber, tinged by a note of resignation. After all, our narrator surmises,

. . . superstition, like belief, must die,

And what remains when disbelief has gone?

Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky. . . .

But, wait, our narrator catches himself, church is perhaps

A serious house on serious earth it is. . . .

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in. . . .

Here perhaps is the crux for church deniers. We all, the poet admits, “hunger,” at least at times, to be “more serious.” We live on a “serious earth,” and church has always been about serious business. Maybe this recognition comes when life has grown less perfect than we hoped for. Perhaps it comes from deep loss or disappointment or loneliness. Or maybe, on the flip-side, it comes from venturing into love or joy beyond easy explanation. We gravitate toward church in these times because we “once heard” church has been a place of wisdom on serious matters.

Maybe this poem is really a plea for the church to be serious, to become a place for serious questions, a place where we might grow more wise on our serious earth. This is not the same as solving our church dilemma with dazzling performances of hip music and cool preaching or even through social action by itself. What we hear in this skeptical poem is a warning: Church needs to acknowledge we live on a serious earth. Church needs to tell the world it offers up good news for serious living. This is the serious wisdom the church cannot afford to neglect.