In the 1990s, I served a sprawling congregation in the suburbs. In those days, in that place, we didn’t do much to attract new members. It was true that everyone on staff worked hard—very hard. It was also true that our youth programs were exceptionally well-attended. But it was also true that visitors just came to church, in and of themselves.
At that time I did not hear concerns about membership decline, denominational decline or congregational closures. Yet now, 25 years later, these topics seem to come up with frightful regularity.
The church, as all kinds of astute people have pointed out, is no longer in its heyday.
In the area of the country where I now serve, the Pacific Northwest, it’s not uncommon for only 1 in 10 people to have any interest in church life. People seem to prefer being spiritual to attending church. Personal relationship with God, however one envisions God, is generally valued over experiencing God through law and gospel, word and sacrament.
Given that our Lord has made it clear that the faithful are to go out “fishing” (Matthew 4:19), all this leads to interesting dynamics.
And today we’ve paid much attention to outreach. Wonderfully creative programs are in the works at congregational, synodical and national levels.
I wonder, though, if in the middle of this very needed emphasis, we tend to forget what might be the other equally important side of the coin.
Our good-intentioned outreach efforts might well address the need for current congregational members to open up toward the wider world. It is the painful truth that our hubris insists that we not bend for anyone on the outside. Programs and ministries that call us to see the stranger, our neighbor, and hear his or her story bear witness to the Spirit’s ever-moving presence.
I’m convinced, however, that as much as we can be called to hear the seeker and others like him or her, attentiveness to what we are inviting that seeker into is just as necessary.
We might well send our pastors and people out into the community to hear our neighbors’ needs, hopes and dreams. Once we have gained the neighbor’s trust, however, do we offer only worship and life tailored to the needs and concerns of the seeker? Or does the whole body of Christ—congregational life—come right along with it?
Will we, for instance, invite the new one into a group of people that are a little crabby, if not downright irritable, for all the changes made for the new one’s sake? Or will we give common witness to what Jesus seemed to have envisioned, a place not so much where gentiles worship one way and Jews another, but where distinctions between people empty, and all sing the new song, joyously, in hope?
When new ones come to the community, will it be about us having power? Or them having power? Or will it be about the gospel having power in us, between us, through us?
We might do all we can to have our bands in tune, our name tags up and ready. But will we hear and see not only intonation from our musicians, but more, servanthood? As name tags are given in all diligence, will the feel of worship also make tangible that these are people—old and young alike—who care for one another, pray for one another, speak with one another, know one another, without, even once, neglecting the stranger along the way?
I wonder if we’ve lost our way to many outside of the church at least in some part because we have neglected to live out communally that deep sense of what we know to be Good Friday grace, that profound sense of what we know to be Easter joy.
And I wonder if we would put our efforts not only toward outreach, but also toward this lived-in-ness of the gospel, whether we would sense the Spirit anew, gathering us, growing us, once more.