Time to switch vessels

Seekers care about connecting with God, not church 'brand'
April 29, 2009

Not long ago, I attended a clergy conference in my diocese and left feeling as though the organizers – or perhaps the clergy association – should have included Dramamine with the registration packet.

Despite an agenda that held out two central topics for conversation, the Conversation We Have Resolutely Avoided suddenly became the Conversation That Would Not Be Refused. Are we on a sinking ship? Are we indeed rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

Nautical metaphors emerged early in the proceedings and very quickly took on an unsettling tone. Some younger and more recently ordained clergy boldly declared the vessel to be on course for glory, expressing resentment at even posing the question of seaworthiness.

"We are not on a sinking ship," one bravely declared, to applause. I couldn't help remembering Winston Churchill's tart reply to Wendell Willkie's call, during World War II, for the end of the colonial system throughout what we now call the Global South. "I did not become His Majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire," thundered Churchill.

But, of course, that is exactly what occurred. Historical forces are hard to argue with. Not even a seaworthy ship can command the tide not to rise.

The irony of all our nautical talk is that the vast majority of people taking a journey today – business, pleasure or spiritual – are heading to the airport. Let's agree that we've exhausted the metaphor and say it plainly: For more and more people trying to find their path toward God, the means of conveyance we are offering is no longer seen as a good way to travel.

Let me put my warrants out up front. I believe we've done exactly the right thing in upholding the ordination of all people in our church, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. For seven years I worked as an associate in a church where the senior minister was an African-American gay man. So there isn't a lot of room for question about where I stand on the issues now so central in our life together as church.

The problem is that we seem to be talking about practically nothing else. Seen from the outside – from the perspective of seekers just looking for a place with an open door where they can make their own relationship with God – it seems like all we have to offer is our positions on various issues. We are becoming a smaller and smaller church of fewer and fewer people who can agree to a longer and longer list of positions on issues.

This isn't just the nattering of disaffected conservatives – the usual way we dismiss these concerns. Survey research, most recently the Pew Forum's United States Religious Landscape Survey, shows plainly that we and most other mainline traditions are losing ground. In our case, for every seven people entering an Episcopal church, 10 are leaving. That's not a sustainable trend.

The survey points up an interesting countertrend worth pondering. The one bright light of significant growth in the mainline group of churches is – are you sitting down? –"nondenominational."

We might summarize the trends the report identifies in a simple statement: The denominational structures that we inherited, those traditions once central to shaping our identity and sense of community, are answers to a question fewer and fewer people are asking.

In this era of spiritual air travel, the giant ocean liners of our traditional denominational polities are seen as inefficient, slow and generally unpleasant means of getting to where seekers – and even a good number of people born into our traditions – want to go.

Whether we are prepared to deal with it on their terms – whether we even regard their questions as valid – those outside our churches are increasingly skeptical of the value of received institutional structures for accomplishing what they regard as the principal purpose of trying out, and being in, a church.

Less brand loyalty
Step outside the church into the world they deal with every day and it's easy to see why. They confront the challenging of living and working in a world where organizations that succeed in responding to change are being ruthlessly flattened, collapsing old hierarchies in favor of structures more supple and responsive to the needs of the people they serve.

And – especially among the generation now rising – their skill at using information technologies to assess alternatives, no matter what the need, makes them significantly less devoted to, and more skeptical of, the old virtue of brand loyalty – Ford, Ivory, Sunoco or Episcopal.

Their purpose in finding a church is, in short, very different from what ours appears to be in being a church. We want to work from the basis of our faith to articulate faith-informed positions on issues of the day. But they are looking primarily for a way into relationship with God and God's people; to be in a community of faith that looks something like the communities that they know from the other spheres of their lives.

Those other communities have characteristics that make our churches seem alien, even forbidding. First, most folks outside the church are quite accustomed to living and working in communities where people hold a great diversity of views on social and political issues. They live in neighborhoods and communities, they work in offices and classrooms and laboratories where they have become adept at making relationships with people with ideas and commitments different from – even sometimes in conflict with – their own. And they are not threatened by this.

But we seem to be. We feel passionately about our positions, whatever they may be, on a variety of subjects – nondiscrimination, stewardship of the ecology, issues of war and peace, economic justice.

We are smart people, and we develop highly articulate statements on these subjects. And it is right that we should feel deeply about these things.

The problem is that those outside the church looking for a way in feel – often rightly – that if they don't agree with a position we've taken, they aren't welcome. We've lost our talent, or our tolerance, for welcoming and affirming people who don't, or can't, agree with us.

We haven't balanced deep commitment with wide and genuine welcome. Winning the point has become more important than weaving together the community. We may say, and believe, that we're actually very welcoming; but we need to deal with the reality that most folks outside our doors simply don't have that experience of us, even when they've tried us.

Not all the churches examined by the Pew survey are declining, of course. Most of us would not wish to belong to, or even visit, the kinds of churches that are growing; we dismiss them as evangelical, conservative, right-wing, even backwards.

But a little humility on our part might make it possible to see that it is possible they are better at answering the needs of seekers who otherwise might dare to enter our doors.

Yes, they spend less time talking about issues of the temporal world, issues of justice and equality – issues important to us. But they devote more time to talking about things we seem to be much less interested in, at least to those thirsty newcomers – sin and forgiveness, how to engage the Bible at a deeper level, how to raise a Christian family, how to find joy (joy!) in Christian faith.

Can any of us seriously wonder why someone just beginning a journey of faith would find that a more welcoming place?

Is the ship sinking? Is it still seaworthy? Here's a more difficult and more pressing question: Is it time to move on from the age of ocean liners? Are we more devoted to our institutions, to our way of being church, than to our gospel?

The gospel is the message. The church is only the medium. There is a deep, eternal truth to that message that will find a way to be communicated. If our medium can't adapt to carry that message, then it will be passed by – no matter how many ships we build.

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