Future of this City Congregation

Posted: August 1, 2015 in Musings

A Reflection 

What is the future of this City Congregation?

At what seems to be the popular level of response to this question is the underlying assumption that if only more people would come to church and be members of this City Congregation it will survive if not be rejuvenated and regain its former glory. All that is required is a program that invites and encouraged people to become members and join the congregation, but is that what is needed? Is that an effective was of rejuvenating let alone surviving?

If we take a brief look at this ‘joining’ process we might see that for some that will mean “joining,” as “joining” has traditionally been understood. They will attend a membership class, sign a document signifying membership, make a stewardship commitment, and if they are coming from a different faith tradition or from no faith tradition, they might seek baptism and/or confirmation. You will expect to see them in worship on Sunday. You probably will ask them to take a Sunday role, perhaps as a greeter, because new members make especially effective greeters.

That is a path that many church leaders recognize. We have protocols and liturgies for it. We have learned to ask people about their faith stories, rather than load them down with church history and doctrine. We have parked our concern for theology in the non-popular too hard basket and we have engaged in other ways to affiliate, and the smart church will maintain those other pathways, as well.

Primarily the issue has become, how to participate rather than join and this is because many people are simply averse to joining a congregation. They are part of a society that no longer values what is called the institutional side of faith life. Perhaps they were hurt in a previous church, or they have heard stories of people getting hurt. Recovering addicts, for example, tell harrowing stories of being abused by churches. So do victims of sexual misconduct and of church conflict. These people expect to serve and to give, but they don’t want membership.

Another interesting development is the desire to participate but not in Sunday attendance and Worship. Here we need to recognize that Sunday worship doesn’t interest everyone. Wrong time of week, or an activity they find boring. If we keep pressing them to come on Sunday, we will lose them. We can offer additional worship at a time other than Sunday, such as a midweek evening. We can encourage them to join or form a small group, perhaps a house church that worships in a non-traditional way at a home, or a study group, a discussion group, a parents group. The group will offer community, which is probably what they want anyway.

We can even sign people on to a social justice program or a social support activity as many people are drawn to faith community because they value its mission work. They want, for example, to build Habitat houses, serve food, advocate for the disadvantaged, join community dialogs across lines of division such as race. Their heart lies in social justice, community development, hands-on service.

One of the aspects of being this City Congregation and one that has very little attendees who live within its geographical setting is the form of affiliation and it can be hard to understand. It is however very real even though it draws its allegiance from people who ‘live elsewhere’. They identify with the congregation because they value its past mission or because they once attended or had a pivotal life experience there. In its ‘heyday’ thousands of people attended and participated and engaged in its life and work. The requirements of membership in this model are particular and the challenge is to welcome people’s engagement and do more than cash their checks. Invitations to join church tours overseas, to host church youth when they visit their area, to share their faith journeys via the church newsletter are but a few ways this model of congregation can survive if not grow. But these are not traditional avenues of affiliation even if they are increasingly the norm even for the more geographically oriented and motivated faith communities. The primary question being faced here is how to belong to a faith community but not to worship on Sunday.

A further complication or component is that this City Congregation does not own its future. In its past success at membership it has engendered a sense of ownership by those who no longer attend. One could suggest that it has been successful at this belonging but not attending model of being church in that now it faces losing its ability to make decisions about its own future. Nostalgia and past affiliation even by one’s family if not oneself means that one has a say in what happens to its future. Attendance no longer has rights because it has been successful at creating belonging.

One particular of this mode of evolution as a no-Sunday worship, activity based community is that it no loses the importance of the physical and its buildings become less important and more burdensome. Theologically its model of being a church challenges the need for a physical icon upon which to celebrate its identity. The unfortunate thing about this evolution is that many in this community who no longer attend or even participate still retain their sense of ownership of its presence. The icon has become an idol, the buildings have become the church for those who no longer attend yet feel a sense of connection.

The idea that the church is the people and not the buildings sort of ecclesiology appears to be challenged and talk of heritage becomes more prevalent. This City Congregation is now challenged with new questions. What is the model of membership in this sort of church? Is it possible to maintain the centrality of worship and the participation in social, political and economic development that lies at the heart of Christian Mission? Can it survive without a beautiful building that has become an idol or more importantly can the congregation survive when its buildings iconic value as a window into the community of faith is lost? What does the building’s beauty mean? Is it beautiful? What do we do with it when its beauty no longer serves the purpose for which it was built?

These are not easy questions nor are they are one’s the wider community can answer. Only those who are engaged in doing theology can even have insight into the options, not as claim to some sort of elitism for intellectualism, but rather as acknowledgement that only those who care about an intellectually honest community and who are committed to Jesus of Nazareth can wrestle with how the story of Jesus of Nazareth might unfold today. Only they can even begin to understand what church is to the community and how church might be of value to the community. Only those who participate in its daily life hold the keys to its future and thus to its heritage let alone how that heritage might be maintained and engage with the present and the future. The primary challenge is how to avoid becoming a cult owning community idols while maintaining itself as a sect. The challenge is to be of value to human society in such a way that is a beacon for a way of living as better human beings.

Doug

Comments
  1. I found this extremely interesting and there is much to ponder not just for your congregation but many. I think a valid question today for ‘long’ established congregations is what is my priority? Is it to draw people to Christ’s church or to ‘our’ church and I would postulate that they are not always the same. I don’t know the answers but I do believe that the days of brick and mortar are drawing to an end, but closing doors don’t need to mean closing hearts.

    • revdougnz says:

      Dear George,
      You are very right in saying that a large number of congregations face these questions and that the days of bricks and mortar are drawing to an end.
      I do wonder though if just looking at one’s own ‘priority’ is in a sense hiding from the reality that suggests a heightened suspicion of institutions that comes as a reaction to the demise of modernism is killing off the church as we know it. I suspect we need to be asking questions as to what a church might be like if there was no church as we know it. I think this has some exciting journeys to offer but like you said ‘no answers’ and this suggests that we don’t know enough of the questions yet.
      Doug

      • Hi Doug,

        I have been pondering this question today, and certainly there are a lot of ‘easy’ responses in terms of questions that could or should be asked, and of course what the proper answers to those questions should be. However it does not take long to see that that approach could be very trite and maybe trample over some very sincerely held views. At the end of the day there is no right or wrong answer to the question “Why do you come to church”, all answers are equally valid. The really hard question is why do others not attend church, be they new believers, old believers, or those just looking.

        As an aside, I tend to think that if you combined say three dwindling congregations into one, what you would end up with is one larger dwindling congregation that will just take a little longer to disappear. The challenge is not to slow the decline by merging resources, but how those resources might be best utilised to further the kingdom of God.

        I used to hate the concept of making today’s church more relevant to the times, it sometimes felt like a cop out. Up tempo worship, less preaching and more guitars, less sacraments and more social. However thinking about this today I feel I have maybe been to fast to condemn, as does it really matter what draws people in be they young or old if once they are ‘in’ they ar exposed through the body of Christ, to Christ Himself. Having said that I don’t think people today who are truly looking are looking for froth, I stil think people want something they can sink their teeth into. I believe people are looking for somewhere to attend where they can ask the hard questions and not feel that they are somehow ‘falling short’ on the faith front. We are a long way from the 1st century church, we are a time from the culture in which the Bible was written. A lot has happened, and a lot has not happened (Christs return), the challenge and questions are very different 2000 years later.

        Sunday morning time slots, greetings, a few songs, some chat, some prayer, maybe some more singing, some preaching, etc (fill in the standard blanks)’ repeat each Sunday, may work for those who like the routine, like the familiarity, like being a Christian for 2 hours of a Sunday morning. But for those whom God has called, and feel the tender touch and wonder where is Loves love in this broken bitter world, maybe the Church needs to be more than just the building at the top of the road.

        Jesus made the temple redundant, and He did this by submitting to be torn down that He might be raised the third day. Maybe the church of today needs to be torn down and rebuilt. How I have no idea, hence these ramblings.

        Blessings George

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