OK. The mainline denominations get it. We know we’re declining. We know we have buildings literally crumbling around us because of deferred maintenance. We know that these buildings, often constructed to be permanent fixtures in neighborhoods, are now, in many cases fixtures where neighborhoods no longer exist. We know our congregations, as a rule, are “graying”. We know that fewer and fewer congregations can afford to compensate a clergy person as a full time vocation. We know that there will be more congregations going out of business than starting up operations for the foreseeable future.
Whenever we sit long enough to stare into the face of some of this data for any period of time, we get (understandably) anxious. Some of us get misty-eyed about the glory days long gone. Some of us have feelings of sadness and grief as we contemplate the passing of our local congregation and/or our denomination. Some of us get angry — at the people who have left, or our judicatory officials for not providing leadership, or at our denominational bodies for making this or that controversial decision about a particular issue in years past that we think expedited the decline.
During the time I was in seminary (1999-2002) and in the years since, the conversations have been intense, sometimes entertaining, occasionally inspiring. Episcopalians love to talk — in committees, in conferences, in meetings, in digital media, and by spilling ink on paper. We have talked and talked and talked. We’ve used biblical language. We’ve used sociological language. We’ve used generational language. We’ve used business/organizational language. We’ve sliced and diced, analyzed and scrutinized our circumstances — from one angle after another. And my, oh my, how we have talked. This week, I’ve probably read a few more scores of blog posts and news articles relating to the situation; I’ve had several conversations with clergy and lay colleagues about these matters. We’ve constructed, without meaning to do so, one humongous ecclesiastical echo chamber. I know that, through the years, I’ve contributed my own verbiage to the swirling slurry of opinions pinging off the walls.
For all of our incessant organizational navel gazing and endless conversations, there seems to be one group of people missing from most of our discussions. We don’t ever seem to hear directly from the people who live in our communities, but who, for whatever reason opt not to participate in any sort of organized religion. To be sure, plenty of sociologists have studied this group and talked to them. From the research we’ve learned to draw some generalizations. But the people who live near our churches aren’t generalizations. They are very specific! They have specific histories, specific challenges, specific disappointments and specific dreams. Many of them are our friends. We like them and they like us. It would seem these folks could give us some first person insight as to how a community of faith might engage them or be beneficial in their lives. Through such conversations we might better understand how we could more effectively serve our neighbors — you know, the ones Jesus called us to love?
Now if we actively engaged such a project, here’s what I’m pretty sure will not happen. We will not see a dramatic increase in Sunday worship attendance. We will not see the annual operating budget balanced. We will not suddenly be flush with volunteer labor to do all the church chores that have multiplied, like dandelions, in local congregations through the years. So if we’re not going to get more people, more money or more volunteers, what would happen if we risked talking to our neighbors?
To be honest, I’m not sure, but I’ve decided I’ve got to try and find out. It’s time for me to get out of the office and into the field. It’s time for me to start asking questions and spend time listening to what people have to say (even if some of what they say may not be easy to hear). I don’t expect such an experiment will come easily. There’s always plenty of e-mails to answer, books to read, meetings to attend and blog posts to write. Somehow, though, I will have to break the gravitational choke-hold of busy-ness and get on with the business of Jesus, which seemed to include a fair amount of talking to folks — not organizing them. From time to time I’ll post an update about what I learn. For all of the uncertainty I have around this project, I am, becoming clearer and clearer about one thing.
We church types can no longer simply be content with talking to ourselves.