Originally published May 14, 2015, at “sinibaldo.wordpress.com.” Republished with the permission of the author.

A recent Pew Forum study revealed a decrease of 3.4 percent in participation by (roughly 5 million) adults in mainline protestant congregations from 2007-2014, while during the same period a 6.7 percent increase in the unaffiliated, from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent of the population. We are now close enough to say that roughly one in four American adults is not connected to a faith community. As for worship attendance, a recent article in the Hartford Courant reported that in Connecticut (the state where I live) one in four participates in the life of a congregation in a given week.

What does this mean for our congregations?

Rather than wallowing in self-pity over the downfall of our influence in society, it is time to reassess our sense of mission. Let’s discern – how do we connect people to God’s activity already at work in the communities in which our churches are placed?

I believe that being missional (or joining God’s mission) means we intentionally interact with our neighbors and work alongside them for the greater good, seeking to understand our shifting contexts and our stake in them, and redirecting the trajectories of our ministries outward rather than inward, as we invite people to put their faith into action.

Will this translate to new members?

Who knows? Maybe that is the wrong question in the center of all this change. The era of church attraction – assuming that people are looking for a church and all we have to do is provide the right combination of activities, buildings and staff members – is coming to a close. Do we still need to think about what we do internally to support our people, the space to do it, and what hospitality we provide so that people do feel welcomed and connected? Absolutely. But we need a bigger vision.

I agree with our New England Synod’s bishop, Jim Hazelwood, who reminds us that the future of congregations is to be located in their work with the community. It is not that being a Lutheran congregation in Old Saybrook, Conn., is a good thing, bad thing or neutral thing. People know St. Paul because of our LEAP preschool, the Homework Club, our participation in the Shoreline Soup Kitchen, hosting a number of 12-step programs, the Old Saybrook Garden Club and our Memorial Garden, choirs, our work with the regional Crop Walk and holding an annual Christmas Fair. Our job is to keep looking for ways to connect to neighbors. Get the picture?

A former presiding bishop of the ELCA, H. George Anderson, once reflected, “It is a good time to be the church.” I agree! We have both the calling and opportunity to rethink so many of our assumptions as we renew our ministry in a changing world around us.

I grew up in a Christian world. While not all of my family members were church goers, when I was a kid, all of my friends went to church. Most of my neighborhood belonged to a couple of the churches in town, and while more activities for families and children were growing and emerging outside of the church, the culture at the time reinforced the church culture that supported it.

I think of my own children, and most of their friends are not church people at all. Many of our churches operate under the assumption that people will seek and come to us, when the stakes have never been higher to seek them out and engage them where they are.

I wonder what world we are preparing our people to enter. I wonder what world we think we are operating in and preparing any of our people to face in their daily lives. Pew’s findings do not frighten or surprise me at all. I think the results Pew has discovered reflect the reality that we in religious institutions have not always done a good job of connecting the dots with people as to why what we do in our faith communities matters, why they as people of faith matter, and why what we do together matters for the sake of the world. In a world that is increasingly secular, skeptical of institutions and hurting more than ever, we have work to do.

A previous blog post outlined a conversation I had with some youth while on retreat about the challenges of the world today and how our faith intersects them. (“Learning Mission from our Young People.”) After the retreat, I decided to ask our Sunday adult forum the same questions I asked our youth the week prior. I included the youth in the conversation, breaking the large group of adults into four groups with at least one youth per group. Just like I did in my former post, I would like to share the findings from that conversation.

Here are those questions and responses:

1. If Jesus came back today, what challenges would he find in the world?

  • Terrorism
  • Poverty
  • Apathy
  • Stubbornness
  • Division
  • Exploitation of people and resources
  • Immorality
  • Way the world works
  • Illness
  • Communication without seeing results or reactions
  • Individual mindset
  • Discontent
  • Materialistic
  • Technology
  • Isolation
  • Not Personal in the present

2. Whom do you think Jesus would look for to help?

  • Religious leaders of all types
  • Those not in power
  • Those who accept him
  • Those who understand how the modern day works
  • Outside the box thinkers
  • Peaceful people
  • Those who believe in cause
  • Maybe “not” Americans
  • Those willing to help
  • Those who are charismatic and/or persuasive
  • Social media
  • Common people
  • Women
  • Children
  • Each of us
  • Everyone
  • Astronauts (to get big picture / new perspective)

3. Whom did Jesus ask to help?

  • Each of us
  • Everyone
  • Gatherers
  • Different types of people
  • People who need redemption or hope
  • Fisherman
  • Those on the side – forgotten
  • Outcasts
  • Women
  • Children
  • Sinners
  • Ordinary people who were not “awesome”
  • Seekers
  • Non-religious people
  • God!

4. If you were the last Christian, what would you do?

  • Think as if I were the first Christian – teach, serve, find and invite others
  • Check-in with people
  • Lead by example
  • Build bridges to others (like Paul)
  • Be famous
  • Write a book
  • Write a screenplay
  • Write a blog
  • Use social media
  • Pray

5. Why don’t you do those things?

  • Why do you assume I’m not doing those things? – We are!
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of confidence
  • Busy
  • Lazy
  • Less sense of urgency
  • Assume others are doing it
  • The stakes don’t seem as high when part of a wider network

A few thoughts

  1. The Pew Forum survey sampled 35,000 congregations. That sample represents a lot of people. I had two conversations; the first with 10 young people, the second with 18 adults and five young people. Pew provides a macro perspective in order to see with greater clarity what is happening at the micro level. Both perspectives are helpful. So please read the Pew Forum report. But do a little study on the congregational level too. I invite you to take the questions I’ve asked some of my folks and use them in your own context. Share what you learn.
  2. My last question, “Why don’t you do those things?” is purposely slanted. One of my adult small groups called me out during the discussion, “Why do you assume we aren’t doing them?” My goal was to draw people into my own sense of urgency around the need to engage our people (particularly our young people) in renewed ways. Sometimes I think we lack the sense of urgency required to really reconsider what we are doing and why. I believe that sometimes our greatest challenge is not opposition or disinterest from people outside of the church but rather apathy from within.
  3. In the two conversations I had around my group of questions, both age groups were clear on what challenges we face in the world, and many of those ideas intersected. An enduring question I am left with is how (or even if) our churches help people actually engage those challenges we see in the world. Sometimes I think our unstated goal in congregations is to retain people as long as we can, rather than help people actively put their faith to good work and send them out. Our faith matters. Your faith matters. Are we engaging your faith to help you engage your concerns?

I close with a quote from Rachel Held Evans. She recently wrote a book, “Searching for Sunday,” about her journey of rediscovering her faith and connection to the church after she left the evangelical tradition, took time off from the church and found her way into an Episcopal congregation. People have both praised and criticized her for it. Personally, I think we should let her journey be her own and speak for itself. Her story is descriptive but not necessarily prescriptive – an opportunity to listen and learn from someone who has been through some of the on a personal level the demographic changes we read about in the Pew survey. I enjoy her insights.

She posted this on Facebook on Tuesday, May 12, 2015:

Not everyone who leaves church is “nominally Christian” or “luke warm.” For many, our doubts about faith are intense, real and deeply important to us. I’ve only just begun limping my way back to church, but the time away wasn’t because I didn’t care. I cared. Deeply. Checking off the “none” box in a religious survey may seem like a half-hearted or casual response, but for many of our friends and neighbors it carries a lot of careful thought, a lot of pain, and in some cases, a lot of courage. We are each so much more complicated than the boxes we check on a survey. Especially when it comes to faith – one of the most beautiful, frustrating and complicated things of all.

These are important conversations we need to have – with each other in the church, between generations, and with our neighbors, family members and friends.

Are we ready to have them?

Geoff Sinibaldo
Find a link to Geoff Sinibaldo’s blog, “sinibaldo.wordpress.com” at Lutheran Blogs.

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