Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Stop hiding your light under a bushel

Several posts over at the Lead are reflecting on the future of the Episcopal Church (you can read them here and here). You know the challenges already: how do you balance the drive for mission (to do good), and outreach (to spread the Word so to speak ;-), with declining numbers and aging membership, expensive old buildings, and inability to pay clergy. Then there's that whole Anglican Communion/Anglican Covenant thing.

So, let's think about this in another way. What draws people to church?

1) First, there's an internal motivation. For some, the desire to belong to a community comes from their religious upbringing. Others may be searching for something. Maybe it's a need for belonging socially. Or for healing: people who think everything is going swimmingly in their lives don't necessarily see the need to connect with others, but those who feel hurt or adrift are more likely to want some structure. We'll call it the community aspect: being part of something.

2) What does church give you? a fundamental part of community experience comes from the liturgy. To me (yes, even me) this offers a tranquil time of beauty and reflection, away from the relentless pace of outside life and frustrations, even though I don't share the meal. The familiar rhythm provides a space for rest for what I will call my teeming brain. I appreciate very much the very traditional chanted liturgy, accented by incense and polyphony. I can see how this isn't everyone's preference, and in turn I wouldn't get as much out of a less formal, more folky experience (so lucky me, that BP wanted to go high church when she swam the Thames). Of course, the liturgy and doctrine are not necessarily accessible to everyone, particularly those who may be more uncomfortable with the open paradoxes of mythos--but that's a call for better education and outreach (see below).

3) What does church enable you to do? It's also important to me and even more so to BP that we are part of a community that is committed to social justice. Call this the mission aspect. BP has commented more than once that the social justice commitment here goes beyond what she had in her former, much larger RC church. Feeding the poor, caring for the sick, coming out politically and marching in the rallies as a voice for justice. But there's a caveat: volunteer-based organizations can burn people out very easily, unless they take care to protect and restore their volunteers (see 1 and 2).

So what's not to love? Why aren't people thronging to the Episcopal Church?

In part, because as a culture we've lost a sense of community overall. Remember the book "Bowling Alone"? Families don't even eat together any more, let along join with other families in church groups. I think part of this is the relentless treadmill of work. I don't know about you, but my "regular" job occupies much, much more than 40h a week and the expectations of my employer continue to rise so that I run faster just to stay in place. Losing a few hours each Sunday to church can be daunting until you work it into your weekly rhythm. And if your kid plays soccer, well, you'll be driving over 3 counties to away games on Sunday instead.

Part of it is because fewer people believe in God--at least, as traditionally expressed in organized religion.  Remember, the "nones" are the most rapidly growing group of religious identities.   Some might be open, but are put off by what they perceive organized religion is.

So, a big part of it is because "Church" and "Christians" generally are associated with what they (particularly right-wing Christians) are against: sex, abortion, women's rights, and gays. A lot of people are injured by "church" and a lot more have no familiarity beyond what the media tells them--and right now the media equates "Christian" with the right wing. Bickering over internal politics doesn't help. I'd argue that this is the question of outreach and you need to tell people more aggressively what you are FOR, institutionally speaking. I'd like to hear more from bishops and the PB speaking out boldly on social justice issues and pushing back against the right wing.  Every statement the rightists make defining "Christian" as their values needs to be challenged.

And not just that. When BP swam the river, many of her Roman Catholic friends were very unfamiliar with the doctrines and practices of TEC (which are, of course, very similar). The nice TEC parish church not far from her big former RC one would offer a lot of those disaffected Catholics a comfortable home, but they just don't know about it.  The democratic polity and absence of an authoritarian papacy are also attractive features particularly to the RC. (Take that, Anglican Covenant!)

This leads to the final problem being that you don't tell people about who you are, at the individual level.  I have joked many times that I am one of your best recruiters because I am pretty enthusiastic about our experience, and I share that widely and encourage people to try it out. Even strangers on airplanes! But there's a sting to that tale/tail, because I'm not actually a Christian. I think you need to talk more about it (and I'm not talking to my outspoken fellow bloggers, but those quiet lurkers). Why don't you? I suspect there's a big fear of coming across like the evangelizing right-wingers, or the campus crusade cultists, or just some of that English reserve that seems to go along with your still Anglo traditions. But if I, the atheist, can tell my disbelieving scientist colleagues why I go to church on Sundays, so can you.

So, dive in here or over at the Lead.  What's your diagnosis and prescription?


PseudoPiskie said...

Statistics always show that most people choose a church because someone invites them or at least welcomes them when they show up. That was the subject of my blurb in our Jan Chronicle.

WV=musallyz - yes your musicians can be your best recruiting allies. 8-)

JCF said...

Even when speaking w/ the sympathetic/relationally-involved, it's amazing how often the "Rain Check" comes up when it comes to actually walking through the red doors (actually, my St Mike's doors aren't red, but you get the idea). To inquire why it ALWAYS seems to be "raining" at that time feels to me like pushing, so I don't. :-/

Counterlight said...

Frankly, I'd rather have a reputation as the worst crack whore in New York and just plain reek rather than reek of piety. I can be more in the closet about my Christianity than about my gayness. Even I find most self-identified Christians to be insufferable at best and repulsive at worst. I don't see how God can stand them. I can't bear to share 5 minutes in a room with most of them, let alone eternity in some transcendent church social that they imagine is heaven.
Christ has indeed suffered enough.

Actually, I think you are right IT. I've been very happy for the most part in my now 30 years in the Episcopal Church. My first experience of the church was its splendid and moving liturgy, and its intellectual and spiritual fearlessness. I went to a very high church parish in Kansas City and breathed clouds of incense and heard Kierkegaard quoted from the pulpit for the first time in my life. In all respects that was a very novel and refreshing experience for an alienated art student from very evangelical and fundamentalist Texas where the only real choice were between Hal Lindsey's weekly God-hates-you-all-you-faithless-whores weekly doom report and Madalyn Murray O'Hair's give-it-up-losers-it's-all-bulshit atheism. That freshness has never diminished over the years.