Rethinking how we "do" church in 2014...

In a recent posting from the Alban Institute - a think-tank, consultation
center for clergy and congregations of all shapes and varieties that has been active for 40 years - two critical insights were shared about how contemporary people think about church affiliation.  For nearly 20+ years, of course, traditional notions of membership have been non-starters. Not only is there a profound mistrust of institutions, but people are much more interested in relationships than outmoded legalisms. Want to know the vibrancy and strength of your congregation?  Look instead to worship attendance.

And while that continues to be one metric, even that is changing as our culture becomes ever more fast paced. For example, most people under 50 who attend worship now understand "participation" to mean their presence at something church related once every six weeks. It could be a mission event, worship, a study session or a meeting. Now I must confess, while I grasp this shift intellectually, I am still wrestling with how to embrace it.  Clearly, my mind and soul are of another generation.  Sarai Rice puts it like this:


“Active” membership does not equal weekly attendance. When I was a child, being an “active” church member meant attending church every Sunday, with the possible exception of the one Sunday that we vacationed with a relative. When my children were small, “active” would probably have meant attendance three out of four Sundays a month. Now, people consider themselves “active” who may attend as infrequently as once every 6-8 weeks. They still feel loyal to their particular congregation, but the combination of Sunday as a time to relax and as a time to travel means that “active” looks very different. In addition, adult ability to volunteer weekly in the way that former attendance patterns supported is also a thing of the past, even though many congregations persist in believing that their inability to recruit teachers is a failure of discipleship rather than the inevitable result of a shifting cultural norm. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=10363)

I am down with flexibility re: membership and participation, I totally affirm measuring the vibrancy of the congregation through worship participation but I think Sunday morning matters.  For me, Sunday worship is where the community comes together to both practice being the Body of Christ and returning thanksgiving to God.  It is a communal act - not entirely private - and is the historic ground upon which the Church has been built over the centuries.  So, I find giving up the centrality of Sunday complicated.

But my discomfort with this new trend is also an opportunity to rethink some of my assumptions as a church leader - including the sanctity of Sunday morning.  You see, it is slowly dawning on me that what so many people are actually doing with Sunday morning - resting, taking time for family activities, etc - may be a deeper Sabbath than my imagination grasps.  So rather than fussing about why people aren't present on Sunday morning, why not explore the following?

+ First, how can we in the church create/shape/write home liturgies for honoring the Sabbath that help people mark their time as sacred? They need not be present in the Sanctuary to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, right?  So why not explore and then create resources to help them rest in God's love with intentionality?

Worship does not equal Sunday morning. Again, this is nothing new, but other-than-Sunday worship opportunities are increasingly being adopted by congregations for a variety of reasons. Some church buildings, for example, house multiple separate congregations that must schedule their activities so as not to conflict with one another. Many congregations are realizing, however, that Sunday morning is simply not the best time to try to get everybody together. Organized sports are one explanation, but even more importantly, families view Sunday morning as prime time to relax together, with church not always being viewed as the best way to relax. Furthermore, this behavior is not limited to families with small children—even adults increasingly view Sunday morning as a time to settle back and relax or golf or spend time with grandchildren. (Rice)

+ Second, if Sundays are truly becoming a secularized Sabbath of sorts, perhaps the time has come to rethink our community worship. I refuse to surrender to simply connecting on-line for community building - although increasingly I believe this to be a vital resource for us, too - so what would "worship" look like for us at another time of the week? What would a radical rethinking of timing and experience look like that acknowledges contemporary realities and creates authentic worship for our people?  And I don't just mean copying the Saturday afternoon Mass; rather, I mean finding a way to honor the Lord, connect with the community, deepen our faith and strengthen the ties that bind.  What would that look like?  A 6 pm simple meal for all ages followed by a time of song, prayer, conversation and Eucharist?  

+ Third, as Jean Stairs and Dorothy Bass state so clearly, the time has come to help one another reclaim the "practices of our faith" rather than the disciplines.  Practices connotes a life-long encounter - I practice the upright bass - and avoids any sense of guilt, shame or pressure.  Practices invites us to grow deeper without any sense of false hierarchy, too.  It is a way to deepen our faith without becoming dogmatic.  (See Sarah Drummond's article @ http://www. alban.org/ conversation.aspx?id=9116)
Small groups and faith formation does not equal Sunday School in church buildings. Increasingly, small groups off-site are taking the place of Sunday School on Sunday morning. These groups are much more likely to happen in people’s homes or in coffee shops and at the beginning or end of the work day rather than on Sunday. (Rice)

I don't pretend to know any better than any other old pastor how to make this shift with integrity and verve, but it is becoming clear to me that it is essential.  And rather than be afraid of it, I want to find a way to embrace and celebrate the possibilities. I also know that I don't have to reinvent the wheel as minds greater than mine have been doing some of this for the past 20 years, too. So after Christmas, this will be one of my key priorities.

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