As I was 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, I kept coming back to the story of the Open Microphone program going on at St. Luke’s San Francisco.
The Rev Dana Corsello told the story so passionately describing the courage of her congregation to stick with a program that attracts people ‘not like us’ for a nontraditional way of doing outreach (DON”T USE THAT TERM, PLEASE!!!) That was one of the admonitions from the person who is the glue that holds that program together with its own community of faithful.
Our Spiritual Tension in Growth
The problem of church decline is not just one facing the Episcopal Church but for every mainline denomination. I kept coming back to that ‘spiritual tension’ between doing things we know—that no longer work, and doing things we don’t know and may not even like—that might work.
The Parable of the Open Mic is one of the powerful themes from our Membership Growth Workshop because it forces us to confront the Pharisees in our midst that are holding back the church from growing to meet the needs of those it is supposed to serve today.
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 as we have come to know it 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 Jesus does not live in church and was turned off by the rules of the temple and the elders of the 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 that 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 not about the church, it is about each of us. The church fails in its mission if it does not help each of us discover Jesus in our lives and see the wonder and miracles that happen around us each day. 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.
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 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)
- Introducing our new Church Growth Program (churchgrowthprogram.com)
- Lessons of Church Decline and Renewal (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)
- Lessons on Church Marketing (discernablefutures.wordpress.com)