Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"Markers of Religious Connection?"

My mind is circling around a significant realization, and yet I can’t quite seem to grasp it. It’s like I catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye, but if I turn to look at it full-on, it evaporates.

There are a lot of concurrent streams that seem to be converging, and they have to do with ministry, discipleship, church, and how to discern/assess/evaluate them.

Tis the season, I suppose - end of the year reports and evaluations and budgets and goal-setting and all that jazz. And I just become more and more convinced that numbers are not telling the story that we need to be telling.

Get your mind around this. The congregation I serve is going to turn in about the same number of professions of faith this year as last year - 26 last year and 25 this year so far. So, more than 50 people over two years, which is groovy. The total of new members, counting transfers, is going to be up close to 150 for these two years, 2010 and 2011.

But we will be lucky if our average worship attendance increases; right now it is less than last year so if we don’t see a bump here in the last quarter, we’ll turn in a lower figure than last year, which was itself lower than the year before.

150 new members, including 50 professions of faith, and a declining worship attendance? How do we read that? Is it good or bad?

Then there’s this (click here) the Barna research that reveals the propensity of Americans to create our own religion based on what works for us. Two trends that the research reveals …

• More people claim they have accepted Jesus as their savior and expect to
go to heaven.
• And more say they haven’t been to church in the past six months except
for special occasions such as weddings or funerals.

Allow me to holler an “Amen!” to that.

“The important markers of religious connection are fracturing,” says this article, paraphrasing Barna. That says it better than anything I’ve read or heard. The things that we once used to gauge a congregation’s effectiveness or an individual’s spiritual health are no longer applicable.

'The important markers of religious connection are fracturing.'

I have noticed a growing tendency to think of church as something you fit into your otherwise busy schedule. As Barna says it, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs - our clothing, our food, our education.” And that now seems to include our discipleship, too.

Worship attendance? A fractured marker.

Weekly faith formation group? Fractured marker.

Tithing? Fractured marker.

Truly selfless service? Fractured marker.

The thing is, people who DO all of those “markers of connection” can feel a real impact in their lives. Those who worship every week, participate in a small group, give generously, serve selflessly, etc. - it makes an incredible difference in their lives. Their lives are balanced, they know deep joy, there is a firm foundation for times of trouble, and they become who God wants them to be.

And so how can I, a pastor whose driving motivator is to help people become disciples of Jesus who are changing the world for God’s sake, convey this message? How do I say to someone who thinks life is “just fine” that there is more?

It is hard to do because, on one level, their life really is just fine - great job, nice house, a couple of cars, fancy home entertainment center, and so on. Religion becomes something to fit into all of that, not something that calls one to be radically transformed.

The important markers of religious connection are fracturing. And yet we still believe they are important, don’t we? And so we still utilize them to assess congregational effectiveness, even when it may not be applicable to do so because it really doesn’t tell a true story.

- Are there other markers that we could be using? What would they be?

- Can we rethink the traditional markers somehow? In the same way that individuals design their own faith, should the churches design our own assessment tools?

- How do we talk about transformation when everything is “just fine?”

This issue is on a lot of minds lately, and I hope this moment doesn’t go by un-seized. Bishop Pennel has a column on the UMPortal today that gives his thoughts, and I have read several others in recent days. All a part of the converging streams of thought swirling in my brain these days.

Clearly the question of congregational health/effectiveness/success is not going anywhere any time soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think this is true (the markers fracturing) in more areas than the church. We want to measure the immeasurable because we want to gauge our effectiveness. At the same time, if we don't try to evaluate what we're doing, we are likely to continue doing "the same old" because we are accustomed to it, whether or not it is serving its purpose.

Taking it out of the church (and putting on my flame retardant clothing), look at the DARE program. It is impossible to prove that it is (or is not) effective, but schools keep offering it because it's "something." One of the supporting arguments is "if it helps only one kid" it's somehow worth it. Is this true? Is it a good use of everyone's time? I would prefer to see some statistics backing this position, but would I argue the same about church? Is one life changed sufficient or is this a poor use of our resources? I don't know if the answers exist.

Beth B