Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fearless Conversations

untamed wilderness

This week the NYTimes has been featuring a debate section in which people can offer their insights into the critical decline of membership in churches and synagogues in this country.  Surveys and polls are quite clear in their depiction of a steadily growing "downward trend" in church/synagogue membership especially among younger people (Millennials), offering little hope that the trend will be reversed.

Recently, the NYTimes published a variety of letters from those who have weighed in on this "dying church" phenomena. One letter that I found particularly interesting was offered by some "church growth" authors promoting their new book. They promised they had discovered a formula to definitively fix the problem and reverse the decline, promising that their 4-part formula will "make your church irresistible."

The formula that they present for fixing a dying church is quite simple: First, you invite all those people who have left the church or have never gone to a church to come into your churches, and when they arrive they should be "radically" welcomed with open arms. They should find that your church is a loving community of people who really care about each other at deep, non-superficial levels. The people of the church and the unchurched must then sit down together and engage in "fearless conversations" in which everything is re-imagined and even re-invented - God, prayer, doctrine, customs, liturgy, the Bible--all radically re-imagined in "gloves-off," "no-holds barred," "fearless conversations"  - churchgoers and the unchurched all on a journey of faith together, exploring the questions, not providing the answers. 

Do this,  and your church will be "irresistible."

When I read this letter in the NYTimes, My first response was "How could something that is so right also be so wrong." 

In one sense I agree with those authors in the NYTimes. I believe that the "only" way for the unchurched to be engaged in religion again is by having "fearless conversations" with others in a loving community of people who mutually explore questions.  But I think you live in "fantasy land" if you think this can ever actually happen within church or synagogue congregations.

A few years ago when I lived in Syracuse working as an assistant to the bishop, I used to go around from church to church (mainly dying congregations) and offer some suggestions about how they might revitalize (my suggestions were not unlike the formula offered by the authors).  One day, a long-time member of one of these churches approached me. She thought that what I had to say was "right on, "and then she begged me to wait to implement these new ideas until after she was dead and buried."

I immediately understood what this woman was saying to me and I was totally sympathetic to her plight.  After all, people attend a church because they want some degree of comfort and guidance. They enjoy the assurance of doctrine and the sameness of the ritual. Many if not most church-going people feel that they have found something that others (who are not in the church) do not have. They are willing to share what they have found, but are generally quite unwilling to explore new way of being church and embracing a re-imagined way of being faithful. 

I also know many "liberal"congregations who might say, "Yes, of course we want to engage in "no-holds barred" conversations. We would love to engage in the task of 'asking the questions' with those outside the church." However, in my experience, even among these "liberal" church-going people, when you scratch beneath the surface, "fearless conversations" are often not that fearless after all - you still are expected to color within the lines.

Fearless conversations put everything on the table as a "question" beginning with the question of the very nature of God.  "The Bible-what it means and how authoritative it is," "why and how people pray," "embracing the wisdom of other religious traditions," "how a church is structured" - these are but a few of the many questions to be explored in "fearless conversations." And in my experience, asking these questions are frightening-too frightening for many if not most church-going people to really explore in any significant ways. 

It may be ok to tweak a few things in a Sunday service,  but when you start talking about "God" as universal energy and suggest that maybe we don't need bishops anymore, the conversations pretty much shut down.

No I don't believe that churches/synagogues are equipped for the kind of radical re-imagining, re-inventing conversations that need to take place with those who have left the church or have never had any use for religion.  In fact, I think churches should cut themselves a break and let the people who are members of the churches enjoy what they have.

As I see it, we cannot think that an invitation for a conversation "within" a church is going to make a church "irresistible"  - this is "fantasy-land" thinking. And yet, as a Christian, I truly believe that  radical questioning, re-imaging and even reinventing of the faith  must occur lest the "way"of Jesus be lost and forgotten.

At the very least, we need to move out of the churches and into the neutral space of the public forum. Maybe internet chat rooms and Google+ discussion forums will be where we can engage in these "fearless conversations" in the days ahead.


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