Figuring out what non-churched people are looking for is an agonizing endeavour for most church leaders. Churches everywhere are trying things that will draw in new people. Yet, in some of my more cynical moments, I wonder if churches actually offer anything that most people are looking for.
You have to be pretty deep into the weeds of spiritual exploration to be looking for what a Lutheran church is offering. You have to be interested in a rich tradition, heavy with its history, theology and ritual. You have be interested in the structure, patterns and rhythms of liturgy. You have be interested in a biblical understanding that goes deeper than the Sunday School idea of “good people go to heaven and all the people I don’t like go to hell.”
I have had the sinking feeling for years that in our world of reality TV, streaming music, mindless Facebook scrolling and other intense yet mind numbing forms of media, most people don’t even give a thought to the idea that church, being part of a Christian faith community (especially a declining mainline one), is something that they need in their lives.
But then the other day I heard something curious on the radio. It was an interview on The Candy Palmater Show on CBC Radio. She was interviewing a superfan of the Tragically Hip (for those that don’t know, the tragically hip concluded their last tour in the summer of 2016 after lead singer God Downie announced that he has terminal brain cancer). Candy asked this superfan what his emotions were going to be like when he attended his last (21st) live concert and he said,
“This is church for me, and this is the last time I get to go.”
I was half listening to the interview at the time and this woke me up and started my mind racing.
My first thought was, why isn’t church “church” for this man?
But my next more important thought was that maybe people are looking for what church has to offer.
You don’t have to look very far to see that people all around us are flocking to things that bind them together. The Tragically Hip for many Canadians is an example. Sports, politics, music fans, etc… people are gathering around shared interests – no, things they believe in – all over the place.
People want to be part of groups that come together around a common belief or common cause. People want to be a part of something bigger than they are, with others who feel and think the same way. People are looking for places to be church all around us.
So why aren’t people finding “church” at church?
American Christians have this expression that I have noticed becoming increasingly common lately. I have seen it on social media, in videos, and while travelling to the US.
When church people experience a group coming together around a common experience (around terrorist attacks or police shootings, for example), and there is an emotional and moving aspect of being together, people will say, “That’s church!” (said with a southern drawl).
This is almost never in reference to actual church.
It is almost as if our desire and need for “church” isn’t found at church.
The world around us (church people) is increasingly not seeing church as a place that does what church is supposed to do. Churches have stopped being places where people can come together under a common cause, a common belief or creed. Churches are less and less places where people are tied together simply because they believe in the same thing.
How did that happen?
Well, I have a theory.
A few months back I wrote about how many churches have become like soccer teams who no longer play soccer, but who simply gather for coffee and donuts. And as members decline, the chief concern has become who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts. So when people are looking to join a soccer team come to us, and we ask them to be in charge of the coffee and donuts, they don’t stick around.
Being focused on coffee and donuts goes deeper than just not playing soccer anymore (or not having that Jesus guy be the centre of our faith communities).
My theory is that the reason so many un-churched, de-churched and even church people are no longer finding “church” at church is that we have made the focus of church ourselves.
Worrying about who is going to make the coffee and buy the donuts, is really a worry about ourselves. What we are really worrying about is who is going to take care of us. Who is going to worry about us. How are we going to keep being us when us is declining.
The problem with worrying about us is that there is no room for people who aren’t us.
Put another way, Tragically Hip fans always have room for more Hip fans. There is always room for more people to cheer on athletes or sports teams, to support politicians and political parties, to be fans of something together. There is room for the whole world to gather around the Olympics.
There SHOULD always be room for another person who wants to follow Jesus with us. But so often churches are looking for people to care about the survival of us instead of following Jesus. And when us is defined by who is already here rather than the common larger-than-us thing that draws people together, there isn’t room for more us. There isn’t room for more church members when our biggest concern the survival of group that is already exists here.
People are looking for “church” all around us. Faith leaders, church leadership and church people should take more notice. People are looking for experiences and communities that are gathering around something in common, whether it be a band, sports team or political party. They are looking for church as it is supposed to be, being tied together by a common belief in something or someone bigger than us.
But people looking for “church” will not find it in communities whose chief concern is the people who are already there. In fact, you will never find “church” in a group that has already decided that you aren’t part of the group before you even arrive.
Perhaps it is time it for congregations and faith communities to do some soul searching and decide, are we going to be church or are going to be “Church?” Are we going to gather around the group of people that we already are, or around Jesus who calls us to make room for more?