I could not agree more with Richard Hamm when he writes, "True enough, new members are necessary if a congregation is going to be there for future generations. But such a maintenance-oriented church will not attract younger people: they will be attracted by a congregation's sincere desire to live and share the gospel and to meet the needs of people." (Recreating the Church, p. 64).
I actually think that the reason a lot of people stay away from the church is because of the perceived disconnect from what the church says it is and what people actually see the church doing. Here are 5 Fruitful Examples drawn in part from Bishop Schnase's book:
- The church says it is practicing hospitality, but they love each other so much that the church is actually "impenetrable" to any guests who may want to be a part of it.
- The church says that it offers transformative worship, but the most noticable sign in the sanctuary is the one that says "NO FOOD OR DRINK," the services are mostly routine, and everyone just sits passively and never expects anything wonderful to happen.
- The church says that faith development is important, but does not offer small group meetings at times and places when and where it would be most convenient for people to gather.
- The church says that mission and service are important, but only offers sanitized opportunities that are pretty much guaranteed to be safe, the outcome is fairly certain, and no personal investment other than a little money and a little time are required.
- The church says that discipleship is what it's all about, but then spends the whole stewardship campaign talking about money and the church budget.
Those are just 5, off the top of my head examples. I know that there are more. Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, her home town, "There is no there there." And this has become the root issue for the church, especially in the mainline. We invite people to churches that look like the town they built at the end of Blazing Saddles - all facade with nothing behind them.
The point is not to focus on invitation alone, but rather to focus on the substance of what it is we are inviting people to.
Hamm uses a good analogy - a grease factory with no shipping department. It didn't need a shipping department because all the grease they made there was used to lubricate the grease-making machinery. (p. 67)
Whatever it may have meant at one time, the mission statement "To make disciples of Jesus Christ" is insufficient now. It is perceived as having to do only with increasing numbers, and that is a self-serving and therefore self-defeating mission. Susan Cox-Johnson has a post up about mission and in it she writes that churches do not have a mission, churches are the mission. In other words, in the way a church lives, in its liturgy, in its polity, in its community service, in its very being, a church is its own mission.
This means that when the pithy mission statement on the website doesn't reflect what actually happens when the church gathers together, you've got trouble. Big trouble. Not the kind of trouble that drives people away, but the kind of trouble that does absolutely nothing to attract anyone. As Bishop Schnase says, it is not a back door problem, but a front door problem.
I don't feel bad about any of this, either. This is an absolutely amazing time to be serving in a mainline church! It is an opportune time to "live and share the gospel." The emerging spiritual ethos, the spirit of renewal and recreation, the waves of change that are crashing all around us, all create a milieu in which some beautiful things are happening.
It is a bit chaotic, and a bit uncertain, a bit mysterious. And that's okay! Actually, that's kind of the point.
As Susan says, "I don't know, friends, but I guess I miss the mystery somehow." I guess I do too.