RSSinclude - Feed

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Lessons from the Monastery

I read a story in The New York Times about the crisis facing a Trappist monastery. ( In the 1950s, there were 55 monks praying and working at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Now there 13, most of them in their 80s.

I experienced a sense of familiarity when I was reading this article. Although a Trappist monastery and a United Church of Canada congregation are very different in many ways, the basic issue is the same – the passing of a form of religious community and commitment.

The Trappists have it worse than us. There was a time when young men were eager to take a lifelong vow of prayer, silence, manual labour and celibacy. It was viewed as a high calling, and a heroic way of life. And the essence of that way of life – seclusion from the world, resistance to change – makes it all the harder.  

But when you get right down to it, our problems are fundamentally the same. The number of people – especially young people – who find it spiritually and socially meaningful to commit to weekly participation in a congregation is dwindling. Our world operates according to rhythms that make that way of life very difficult. And increasingly people want to chart their own spiritual journeys without the burden of institutional forms.

The irony is that we live in a time of intense spiritual longing. People are feeling fragmented and dislocated, lonely and confused. The dramatic rise in mental health issues, addiction and stress-related illness is testament to the malaise of our culture. People are longing for connectedness, community, purpose, and meaning. They are aching for compassion and rest.

And so here’s the interesting thing about Mepkin Abbey. While the monks are getting old 
and dying, the monastery’s retreat centre is fully booked months in advance.

(The monks have also found that the Abbey grounds are a stunning location for a wedding.)

What this says to me is that, while the specific form of religious observance and commitment is becoming  unsustainable, there is something about the place and what it has to offer that still speaks to people’s souls and draws them to the Abbey.

The monks, God bless them, are trying to change. They are beginning to offer short-term monastic experiences – one month, a year – that don’t require a life-time vow. They know that, even though the supply of novices has dried up, there is still something they can offer.
This provides an analogy to our churches. There are things about us that are unsustainable. 

But are there also things about our churches that people are longing for? Can we find different and imaginative ways to offer those?

Recently, I conducted a workshop at a congregation. I invited people to answer the question “Why don’t more people come to church?” That’s a good, open-ended question.

But then I said, “What if we turn that into a closed question and ask: Are people coming to church? Is it true that they're not coming?” Well, not as many. And not so much on Sunday mornings. But they’re still coming. There might have been 300 and now there are 60, but that’s still 60 people.

And it turns out that people are coming to lots of other things at the church – study groups, community groups, dinners, events. The church is actually a hive of activity all week. 

We seem to be fixated on one single metric: How many people are in worship on a given Sunday.

Not to say that the rapid decline in this number isn’t significant. And not to say that showing up to the monthly community dinner is equivalent to being a fully committed member of the church.

But I believe that, hidden in the interactions the church has with people outside of Sunday morning, and in the connections members of the church have with neighbors, friends, co-workers and strangers, might be clues to how the church will evolve in the future.

We need to explore those connections at a deeper level, and ask how they could provide opportunities to do what the church is really called to do: witness to the liberating power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Like the monks of Mepkin Abbey, we have something precious to share for which people are desperately hungry. The future could be right under our noses – if we have the faith and imagination to follow the clues.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Questioning Our Questions

The question I hear most frequently asked in churches is:
How can we attract more people to our church?

This is a challenging question with no easy answer. But sometimes before we can get an answer, we need to probe the question itself. We need to “question our questions,” as Warren Berger puts it in his great book A More Beautiful Question.

What are we really asking when we say, “How can we attract more people?” What if we dug beneath the surface of that question by putting to it another question: “Why?” Like this:

Why do you want to attract more people?
            “Because there are fewer of us and we’re all getting older.”

Why does that matter?
            “We need people to do the work and support the programs.”

“Because if we don’t have enough people, eventually we’ll have to close.”

Why does that matter?
            “I’d be heartbroken. I really love this church.”

Maybe you’ve had that conversation in your church. The thing to notice about it is that the answers are mostly about the church. They mostly have to do with our desire to sustain something that matters to us.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t come to your church. How would this conversation sound to them? It begs another question: “Why would they come? Why should they come?”  

Could we ask that question in a different way? Could we ask it so that it has more to do with them and less to do with us? Could we start by asking “Who are these people we wish would come to our church?” Who is moving into all those new houses being built? Where have they come from? Where do they work? What are their lives like? What are their hopes and fears? What gives them joy? What do they struggle with? How could we get to know them? How could we build a relationship with them?

The number one reason why people come to a church is because someone they know invites them. It’s not catchy signs or websites or flyers dropped in their mailbox. It’s a relationship. So instead of focusing on what they can do for us, what if we focused on how we can get to know them, how we can show them we care about them as more than just potential givers or volunteers?

A different version of this question is: “Why don’t people come to church?” We think about
our kids and grandkids, our neighbors and co-workers, and wonder why so few of them make time for church.

Common answers to that question are:

Too busy.
Sunday sports.
Working weekends.
Overprogrammed kids.
Not committed.
They just don’t care.

But that sounds a lot like blaming them for not caring about something we care about. It makes their absence from church their problem.

Could we ask that question in a different way? Could we reframe it so that it has more to do with us than with them? Could we ask it in such a way that it would move us to look at how we can become more welcoming? To look at whether we are putting up barriers that might be keeping people away? Instead of saying, in effect, “What’s wrong with them that they’re not coming to church?” could we ask how we could strengthen our practices of hospitality, spirituality, worship, community, service?

We can’t control the choices people make about their lives. We can only create the conditions that will make our church a more inviting place to be.

When we ask about attracting people, we should think first about them – who they are, what they need, what are seeking.

And when we ask why they don’t come, we should think first about ourselves – what we could do to make it easier for people to come to church and inviting enough that they’ll want to come back.

Sometimes these questions seem like dead-ends. But maybe we could reframe the questions themselves so they open us to new possibilities.