1.04.2014

We hold these truths to be self-evident?

There's an article making the rounds in my circles from an ex-pat Lutheran pastor who visits home and finds some surprises going to church. First, she is acutely aware of being a stranger in this congregation, even though she is steeped in church culture. Second, she confronts the comfortable idea that once someone crosses the threshold of a church, the liturgy, prayers, and sermons convey what the people there believe. She says:
It’s a nice idea, but I no longer think it’s remotely true.
I've been pondering this idea for a long time. In my tribe we tend to think that if we can just accompany someone to church and get them involved somehow, they'll "get" faith. But I don't think this "attractional" model works so well any more. Many of the people I know who aren't involved in church don't see relevance to Sunday worship (at best), or have been bored by it or burned by the experience (at worst). Frankly, I know more than a few "church people" who are bored and looking for interaction and community and more depth than can be found in most liturgies.

(Disclaimer: these are anecdotal observations; I don't claim to "know" what "unchurched people," "nones," the "formerly religious" or any group think. Because individuals have different stories and experiences. And its individuals who embark on the journey of faith, not demographic cohorts.)

What's no longer remotely true is the idea that most people in our culture are looking for the Sunday-morning-go-to-meeting experience. Congregations that are waiting for such people to show up may be waiting a long time.

Nor is it true that people are waiting to be invited to a church service, of any style. "Church" is a meaningful experience for many people, most of whom already attend at least semi-regularly.

In my tribe we have long assumed that people are looking for traditions and theology and then form community bonds. And we've watched while (mainly evangelical) churches connect with people over contemporary music and coffee and build community -- and then teach them theology and practice. Our observation is usually that we don't agree with the theology. But the point is that we can share our treasure of God's mercy and grace and presence only after we are in relationship with people. And if we expect them to come with our history and ideas, there will not be much of a relationship.

(Aside: I am really uncomfortable with most of the terms we use in the church for "outsiders." "Unchurched" implies that others lack something, which they don't; God works with people who are not part of the church, sometimes more easily than with insiders. "Non-Christians" is similarly dismissive. "Not-yet-Christians" is even ruder. And please don't get me started on "the lost," possibly the most arrogant church term I've come across. So I'm going to talk about "our neighbors.")

Building relationships with our neighbors isn't a wish or a program or an ad. It's a commitment. It's a slow process that starts with "being there" where they are in daily life. It's an out of the building experience.

It can be tempting for us church geeks to focus on how we can make worship more inviting, more participatory, more clear about what we believe; to move toward becoming communities of Christian practice, not just Christian doctrine. That's important, for the faith formation of the people who are in church now.

Connecting with neighbors who are not participants requires new entry points into the life of faith that will seem odd to those of us steeped in church culture. Community centers to help youth with homework and offer space for music and art, rather than lock-ins. Theology pubs and coffee conversations -- in bars and coffee shops -- rather than classes in the parlor. Community service projects that engage the community rather than "just us" doing stuff for "them," so neighbors can hang with us with no expectation other than to help with painting, or cleaning up, or feeding people.

We need to get close enough to our neighbors that they might actually catch the faith we have been incubating. Then we need small, personal spaces where people can get to know each other and talk about their ideas of faith, as a step into the traditional gathering we know. Or maybe not. Maybe these entry points will become their "church." We could do far worse.


Photo by Flickr user loop_oh under Creative Commons License.

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