What's Not Working and Why?
I've been reading a lot these days about how the church is dying. I'll say up front that I don't agree. It may be in decline...but dying? Please. I think that Jesus had something to say about this to Peter, the "rock of the church", when he proclaimed that "the gates of hell cannot stand against" the church that would one day thrive and flourish. In other words, the church isn't going anywhere any time soon. I do think that in many ways, the church is losing, or has lost, its high and lofty position in the eyes of the culture and it seems at times to refuse to budge. To do so, in the eyes of so many, would mean the church is "selling out" or "preaching a false gospel" or is "becoming too much like the world". As best I can remember, people said the same thing about Jesus. I want to offer something up today and I will admit that these thoughts have been brought on by a wonderful book that I am reading called, "Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church". I am moved to offer a few things for whoever comes across them. They represent my observations based on my 9 years as an Episcopal priest. If it makes one person think today, then that's a victory in my book. The question; what do we need to think about as the church tries to navigate its way forward?
1. People want to know what "commitment" to the faith really means: I'm not sure that we articulate this one very well. We tell our people to commit and to "live the Gospel" and to "give their lives over to Jesus", but we don't always explain it in a relevant way. The ideals are there, but they don't always match up with real world experience. "Jesus said don't judge and forgive everyone for everything, tithe your income, read the bible." Awesome. How do the members of your church live those things out? What if they don't? What do your members "do" with the constant struggle of, "I know I should, or shouldn't...but..."? Ideals are not a bad thing, but they must be realistic and they have to at least seem remotely possible. Otherwise, all we are doing is adding to the frustration of the people in our pews who, when they take the time to think about it, realize that they are falling short. It would be a good idea to ask, "how does a person actually do these things that Jesus calls them to do, especially when they might seem, on the surface, to be impossible?" Too often the church gives the hard teaching and then charges its people to "go and do likewise" without any thought as to how it can be realistically done.
2. Why should people commit to the church? We say this all the time don't we? "God is calling you to be committed to the church." What does that mean? Why is it important? Is it the level of giving; is that what you mean? Is it worship every week? Bible studies? Ministry involvement? If the answer is "yes" to all of the above, then, why? Why is it important to commit like that? Again, we tend to give the same canned answers. The church tells its faithful that they are "expected" to commit as part of the "discipline" and "growth". If they don't "support" the church then who will? Sounds a lot like "duty"...it's your "duty" and obligation" to be committed to your church. Do you thing that resonates? Probably not. I'm not sure I want people in my church committed out of "duty" anyway. I think, as pastors, we might spend some time over a cup of coffee with other pastors to talk about why the church is relevant and important in people's lives by asking...what difference are we really making in the lives of the people in our pews? Are they committed out of a love for God and a love for the people around them? Would they answer, "because it's where I encounter God" if asked, "why are you committed to your church?" Are their questions being answered? Is there room for doubt? Is real dialogue happening? Why or why not?
3. Is liturgy transforming people? Being a part of a liturgical church is amazing and I love it. It's all I have ever known. The Eucharist is the driving force in our communal life. I wonder though, is the liturgy changing lives? Are people, as a whole, experiencing God through the prayers we say at the table? If we could take an anonymous poll where we could ask, "do you experience God on a regular basis through the Eucharistic prayers", what would people say? In my denomination, the prayers have gone unchanged since 1979. There are 6 options I can use. There are other options available, but ultimately, most of us stick to the 6. That's it. Sure, I can do what we call "Rite 3" where I can be creative in the context but the end result will most likely always wind up sounding and looking something like what we already do on Sundays. I don't know the answer here, but liturgical churches might do well to think about this one. We've prayed the same prayers for over 30 years now...is it time to do something...don't crucify me here...different? Can the form of service take a different shape and sound? Can we be, dare I say, a little more creative?
4. It's time to live into "the church welcomes you". Period. I chuckle when I see churches that are militant over sexuality issues and the ordaining of women clergy, who then put out the sign, "all are welcome". Sounds more like, "you are welcome here...unless...". I'm not judging really. I am just saying that when the church does this kind of thing, people can see right through it. And they don't come back. Ever. There's that line we like to use...hate the sin love the sinner. I'm thinking out loud here, but if our posture with someone walking through our doors is to identify what they are doing wrong and what we don't like about it, or worse, what God doesn't like about it...how does the church preach that Gospel of grace? Do we realize that those same people come to the church hoping for a sabbatical from what everyone else might think about them? The people around Jesus could never figure out why he liked to hang out with the worst kind of people. Maybe it's because no one else would. Maybe that's why so many were drawn in. All were welcome. Jesus showed this by touching the people that were untouchable and holding the people that were living on the fringes. Jesus didn't stand in front of people and condemn them or hate them. He never said, "I hate your sin Mary but I love you". If we, as leaders, spend chunks of time praying about how we can love people and welcome them, then we are living into that teaching upon which hangs all the law and the prophets.
Think about it.