Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Gathering the Churchless

My church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Kansas City, is in the midst of Gather & Grow, a campaign to build ministry with people in our community and steward our facilities (particularly our aging youth center and tired lower levels of the church).  We’ve heard God knocking on our doors, asking us both to tend what’s behind them and to open those doors wider to the people around us.

If we needed evidence for that call to mission, we can find it in a recent book from church researchers the Barna Group.  In Churchless,1 George Barna and David Kinnaman document the fascinating spiritual state of a nation many consider Christian.  In a nutshell:  43 percent of the U.S. population is not part of a church community.  Thirty-three percent were once part of a church but have now chosen not to be, and 10 percent have never been (1).  In the Kansas City area – here in the heart of the Midwest, a bulwark of traditional values – the percentage is smaller.  Still, a remarkable 34 percent of the Kansas City area, about 320,000 households, is “churchless.”2

But even more remarkable is the rest of the story:  For many people in this group, God’s not the problem; the church is.  In fact, the Barna study reveals that clear majorities of the churchless are actually seeking God, just not with a group of other people on a Sunday morning.  Consider these findings:

  • Two-thirds of the churchless say they’ve tried something to expand their faith understanding and maturity in the past month (61).
  • 62% consider themselves to be Christian (41).
  • 58% pray to God in a typical week (59).
  • 52% desire a closer relationship with God (123).
  • 51% are actively seeking something better spiritually than what they’ve known (41).
  • 26% go so far as to characterize their spiritual seeking as a quest for spiritual truth (41).
As my business-oriented friends would say, this seems to be an “opportunity-rich environment” for churches … if it weren’t for the fact that they’re churches.  The Barna study confirms what we’ve heard before: that spiritual pilgrims, especially young adults, tend to see churches as restrictive and intolerant, relationally shallow, antagonistic to science, judgmental about sexuality, judgmental toward people of other faiths, and unfriendly toward people’s honest doubts (97-102).

I know I’m biased, but I don’t think those generalizations describe most congregations of the Episcopal Church, and I’m certain they don’t describe St. Andrew’s.  In a nutshell, this is why we’re undertaking Gather & Grow, our campaign to build ministry with people around us:  Because we know we have something to offer spiritual pilgrims. 

At St. Andrew’s, we’re seeking to reach people with multiple entry points as well as Sunday morning.  According to Churchless, the sorts of things most likely to connect with the needs and desires of spiritual pilgrims are ministries to serve the poor and alleviate poverty, to support and mentor young adults trying to figure out how to raise kids, to help parents instill character and values in their kids, and to provide safe places to explore real questions about how faith intersects with the rest of life and the world around us.  There’s our opportunity-rich environment – an opportunity to love people and meet real needs.

But we also have to remember each person in the Barna study is, first and foremost, a person, not a data point or a potential member.  So it might be helpful to think about real people’s questions and the answers we might provide.  Recently, a couple of real, live human beings raised a wonderful series of questions with me – questions that people of faith need to be able to answer with compassion and clarity. 

Just this week, I met a man named Tim outside a restaurant.  He saw me wearing a clerical collar, which can be a wonderful invitation to conversation.  Tim led with this comment:  “You know, actually I love Jesus – he’s great – but I don’t have much use for churches.”  What follows is not a transcript of our conversation but questions both from Tim and from other spiritual pilgrims.  I’ve also taken a shot at some answers.

  • “The people of the church and the clergy don’t care about me or what I want.”  I’m sorry that’s been your experience.  It’s a sadly ironic truth that churches sometimes lose their focus on the people about whom Jesus was so concerned – those on the outside of religious boundaries.  Churches sometimes do get caught up in their own institutional lives, and points of view like yours remind us where the institution needs to focus – on those who aren’t members, as well as those who are.  In most churches (not all, but most), you’d definitely find that people care about you.
  • “All that churches want is my money and one more body to sit and listen to their dogma.”  Again, if you’ve gotten this message from churches you’ve attended, I’m sorry.  It’s another example of putting the institution ahead of the people it’s there to serve.  We strive to remember and embody some core principles to guide us away from that mistake.  First, the church fundamentally is not an institution; it’s the gathering of the people God has brought there to be God’s living presence in that place (“the body of Christ”).  Second, we’re called to gratitude, first and foremost, for the blessings God has given us; so the church strives (imperfectly) to be thankful for the gifts of all the members of that body.  When someone makes the commitment to be part of the church family, we do ask for a pledge of time, talent, and treasure as a mark of one’s gratitude for God’s gifts; but the amount and nature of that pledge is strictly between you and God.  Third, many (perhaps most) Episcopalians would feel much the same way about dogma as you do.  We teach the historic claims that Christians have been making for nearly 2,000 years about the nature of God and Jesus’ role in God’s work of restoring all people to the wholeness God desires for them.  But we have no litmus test for being welcomed into our community.  On any given Sunday, you’d find people questioning any of the claims our worship makes.  It’s great fodder for conversation and growth in our understanding of God – and ourselves.
  • “Church people are a bunch of hypocrites, and I don’t want to be like that.”  Neither do I.  But we’re all hypocrites, in the sense that the lives we live don’t quite match the principles and truths we’d claim.  The healing God desires for us has much to do with bringing our lives into alignment with the principles toward which we strive:  love God, love neighbor, love one another.  We’re all works in progress in making that a reality.
  • “If a church really knew me, they wouldn’t want me.”  I’ll bet the vast majority of people in any church feel the same way.  We are our own worst critics, and we know our failings better than any other person.  But Christians would say God knows us even better than that, placing a higher priority on our inherent beauty and goodness, which reflects God’s own beauty and goodness.  Where there are shortcomings and failures, God forgives and helps us move past them.  The journey of developing a relationship with God is about healing our shortcomings and living as God’s creations constantly made new.
  • “Church people have a holier-than-thou attitude; they’re pretentious.”  Yes, some are.  Cultivating the humility and servanthood that Jesus modeled is one of the most fundamental, and challenging, of God’s calls to us.  
  • “I don’t believe their Bible, doctrine, and requirements.  Church people believe a lot of stuff that never happened.”  In the Episcopal tradition especially, we have a long history of holy disagreement.  We see the Bible as living and active, in the sense that not only does it guide how we strive to live and love, but human interpretation of it is always a work in progress.  Very, very few Episcopalians would claim that the Bible, as a document, is inerrently factual.  For us, there is a difference between truth and fact.  Is it a fact that God created the universe in six 24-hour Earth days?  Most of us would say probably not.  Does the creation story in Genesis speak deep truth about God’s extraordinary power, God’s desire for relationship, and the inherent goodness of creation?  Absolutely.
  • “Church people reject the teachings of science and believe in things that are just plain not true.”  Again, for the vast majority of Episcopalians, there is no inherent disconnection between science and faith.  We do accept the teachings of science, and we share its investigational ethos.  We see God revealed in the astonishing diversity and beauty of creation; and we wonder and wrestle when the natural world and human acts call religious claims into question.  That wrestling, that conversation, expands our understanding of God rather than shutting the door to science.
  • “Churches are too political.”  Yes, many are.  At St. Andrew’s, we don’t tell people how to vote or what political party is closer to “God’s side.”  We do believe our faith shapes our responses to policy issues.  Every time someone is baptized, we remind ourselves that we’re committed to loving our neighbors as ourselves and to striving for justice, peace, and respect for every human being.  But we’re also humble enough to know that no person, no party, and no news channel has the right answer to every question.  Again, we find God’s purposes and preferences emerging through dialogue and conversation.
  • “Churches lack the courage to speak on important issues.”  Yes, that, too, is sometimes true.  For Episcopalians, it’s the shadow side of the last response.  Because we recognize that God doesn’t have a political party and that every voice around the table can offer insight into God’s purposes, we sometimes err on the side of being too quiet when taking a stand might alienate some of the people whose voices we want to keep hearing.  It’s part of the ongoing self-examination, and repentance, to which Jesus calls the church.
1.  Barna, George, and David Kinnaman.  Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them.  Tyndale, 2014.
2.  Barna Group.  Kansas City KS-MO City Report 2015, With Comparative Data From the Midwest Region.  Available for purchase from Barna.  2014-2015.

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