“A helicopter was flying around above Seattle yesterday when an electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft’s electronic navigation and communication equipment. Due to the clouds and haze the pilot could not determine his position or course to steer to the airport. The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew a handwritten sign and held it in the helicopter’s window. The sign said “WHERE AM I ?” in large letters. People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drew a large sign and held it in a building window. Their sign said, “YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER.” The pilot smiled, waved, looked at his map and determine the course to steer to SEATAC (Seattle/Tacoma) airport and landed safely. After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how the “YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER” sign helped determine their position. The pilot responded, “I knew that had to be the MICROSOFT building because they gave me a technically correct but completely useless answer.”
A good friend of mine and Mac ‘true believer’ sent me this joke. I opened the email just as I finished writing up the notes from our first Membership Growth Team workshop where we discussed the issues of the long slow decline in church membership, attendance and support. It is a problem not just for the Episcopal Church but for every mainline denomination.
In our discussions we also asked ourselves why was this decline happening and what could we do to turn the situation around and get growing again. The why is this happening question is a tough one. Among the reasons people give for not being part of the church include:
- I feel like I am going through the motions of the ritual but I still don’t have Jesus in my life.
- The hierarchy and rules of the church are not relevant to my life.
- I am seeking spirituality in my life that the church does not fulfill for me.
- The church is more about politics and not about faith.
- I can still believe in God and pray without getting up Sunday morning to go to church.
- The people in church are not like me.
The common denominator in all these sentiments is that the church does not always satisfy the hunger in our hearts for a more personal connection to Jesus, or make us feel that God loves us because we feel uncomfortable in the place He calls his house of worship, or ignite that passion that makes us feel embraced by unconditional love.
The truth is God does not live in church and Jesus was turned off by the rules of the temple and the elders of his time, but instead of staying in bed and feeling sorry for himself he got up and went out to create places in the hearts of each person he touched, or healed or broke bread with that transformed their lives. He taught us that our faith not only sets us free but enables us to see ways to turn the “technically correct but completely useless” situations of our lives don’t have to be that way.
Sometimes today the church is off-putting because we go through the motions and rituals of faith being “technically correct” but then go out and do the same “completely useless” things that brought us to the Table for renewal in the first place.
The church growth challenge is that church growth is not about the church, it is about us. When the church fails in its mission to help each of us discover Jesus in our lives and see the wonder and miracles that happen around us each day, we look for it elsewhere. To get the church growing again it must be able to ‘connect with people’ in ways beyond the ritual and ceremony.
Faith is not something we do on Sunday morning, faithful is something we are every day. Practicing our faith is that ‘rhythm of life’ experience that reassures us that we are not walking alone no matter where we are or what we are doing. We are human and so we stumble. But God still loves us and Jesus is still waiting patiently for us to see him at our side.
The lesson of the first membership growth workshop is to help people find Jesus in their lives on their own terms, in their own ways and time, in community with others seeking to discover Him too. Otherwise we’re just practicing spiritual correctness and it will be “completely useless” and completely obvious to everyone.
- Membership Growth Team Workshop #1 Feedback (diocalparishgrowth.com)
- Church Decline or Growth: Pick One! (churchgrowthprogram.com)
- Lessons on Church Marketing (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)