Tag Archives: change

It’s Not You; It’s Not Me; It Just Is

For the past five weeks, three of us from MCC NoVA have been part of an online class, Renewal 2.0 taught by The Center for Progressive Renewal. The  primary instructor, Rev. Michael Piazza, has a successful history of renewing and growing Protestant churches. One of our webinars also featured another United Church of Christ pastor who has led a successful church renewal, taking the church from an average weekly attendance of 25 to about 150 over a five-year period.

I’ve heard several of the suggestions for renewal offered in this course. Heck, I’ve tried more than a few of them, too. The research regarding the rise of the “nones” (those who claim no religious affiliation), and the overall decline of the mainline church wasn’t new, either. Still, I’ve learned some things; and I’ve really appreciated the honesty of both pastors and our course book Liberating Hope: Daring to Renew the Mainline regarding the challenges of church renewal–especially in progressive communities of faith like ours.

The weekly discussion postings have given me a lot of food for thought, too. These postings also confirmed I’m not alone when it comes to the overload of mind-boggling information out there on the subject of church renewal. Use Facebook and Twitter! Don’t use Facebook and Twitter! Hang a huge rainbow flag on your building to let folks know all are welcome! No, the rainbow is SO overdone and can be seen as exclusive of straight people! Use artwork and non-religious music! Young people today want more ancient liturgy and order–the praise band days are on their way out!

So I guess there’s more than a little truth in Rev. Piazza’s statement: “One size fits some.”

After reading all this information and our weekly class discussion posts, I posted some of my own thoughts and decided to build on those thoughts here. First, I think its fair to say people have experiences of the Divine/Holy/God outside of religious gatherings of all types. Many people also know they can be good, moral and ethical without setting a foot inside any of these communities. Beyond that, most people know they can find healthy community outside of religious community, too.

These realities are challenging enough for most communities of faith. Still, for progressive/liberal communities the challenge is even greater than for far more conservative faith communities. See, unlike many conservative communities, we don’t tie service attendance, financial support and the adherence to specific doctrines or dogmas to the promise of a blessed afterlife or the threat of eternal damnation. While these positions provide people with great theological and spiritual freedom, they also give folks the freedom to “experience God” and make a positive impact in their communities in a variety of ways–all without setting a foot inside a church, synagogue or temple.

This information isn’t new to progressive and liberal people of faith–or at least it shouldn’t be. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fearlessly examine the governance structures of our communities of faith (both local and denominational); re-evaluate our preaching, worship and programming (both internal and external) in order to remain relevant and provide safe spaces for spiritual growth and transformation. If we really believe we have “good news” that can transform lives and bring hope to people, then it is up to us do to our best to share that good news in ways which will encourage people to both embrace it and share that good news and hope with others.

At the same time, I think its fair to say that the fact so many people no longer regularly attend and/or support communities of faith in general sometimes has nothing at all to do with them OR us. That is, not everyone who doesn’t attend church is hostile toward religion. And sometimes their lack of presence and support has nothing at all to do with our preaching, music, worship or programs. They know who we are. They know where we are. Heck, they probably see us out serving in the community, too. They just aren’t interested in what we have to offer.

In other words, it’s not you; it’s not me; it’s not them; it just is.

While I believe there will always be a place for progressive faith and liberal religion, I think it’s past time for us to consider the possibility that our future might be smaller than our past. Sure, there will always be some large progressive/liberal congregations of all faiths–and that’s great. At the same time, for most of the rest of us, I think its time to stop obsessing about the size of our communities. Indeed, maybe its time to stop obsessing about our survival. After all, isn’t Jesus quoted in the bible as saying those who are willing to lose their lives are the ones who will find them?

Instead, why not focus on doing our best to offer relevant and relational communities that are safe places for people to explore their faith and spirituality–places where people can experience transformation in their lives–as well as communities that reach beyond themselves to positively impact the world around them? Sure, it may require “losing our old lives;” still, if we’re willing to do so, can you imagine what we might become?

Blessings on your journeys!

Be Careful What You Ask For

In 1 Samuel chapter eight we read a story recalling the evolution of the Israelites’ movement from a theocracy–where  a god or gods are seen as the ultimate civil authorities and priests claim to speak for those gods–and they were moving to a monarchy, where powerful kings were the ultimate human authorities, and priests would sometimes serve as their spiritual directors and theological advisors (until they upset the kings, that is; then things could go downhill rather quickly for those advisors). Some scholars place the writing of this story around 700 B.C.E. when this community was already divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. By this time both kingdoms had already experienced both healthy and unhealthy leadership, and things weren’t going so well for either kingdom. So perhaps this story was their way of looking back and trying to make sense of their situations by basically saying, “Well, Samuel told our ancestors this would happen if we had kings.”

According to this passage the people wanted a king to rule over them so they would be like all the other nations; and they wanted a king who would lead them and fight their battles for them. Perhaps the Israelites looked around at the nations around them and saw wealth, military power, strong administration and security. And they saw a powerful, charismatic leader at the head of it all–a leader, by the way, who you could actually see and hear for yourself; not a leader who spoke through an old man with sons who were already corrupting your weak governing and religious system. Perhaps they observed these things and thought to themselves: “THAT is what we’re missing–a charismatic leader who will lead us and fight our battles for us! Combine that man with the God of all creation being on our side and we can’t lose!”

Yet lose they did–big time. First the northern kingdom fell; and by 580 or so B.C.E. Judah fell, and the best and brightest of these communities were taken into Babylonian captivity. What happened? Some people believe since the Israelites rejected God by demanding a human king, God was punishing them by allowing them to be conquered. This belief is somewhat like people today saying the challenges the United States faces reflect our rejection of God. At the same time, it could simply be that Israel and Judah fell because that was the way life often worked in that particular time and place. Kings, kingdoms, gods and their religions rose to prominence and then crashed and burned. It was all part of the evolutionary process.

My focus, however, is on the reasons–the motivations–for their insistence on having a king in the first place. Basically the Israelites wanted to be like everyone else, and they wanted a leader who would fight their battles for them. We can apply these motivations to many areas of our lives today, too–including church.

First, I think the Israelites were demonstrating a very basic concern for survival–and that’s normal. Samuel was old and his sons were corrupt. They needed a new way of governance and leadership, and witnessing the success of the nations around them, they decided that was the model to copy. Samuel would appoint a strong leader who, in turn, would lead them and fight their battles for them. And we can’t really blame them for wanting to survive, can we? Of course not! What we can question, however, is how that survival seemed to be all about them and no one else. Beyond that question, too, is the idea of wanting someone else to fight their battles for them.

So here’s my question: “What are our motivations for having these communities we call “church”?

That is, why do we say things like, “We just HAVE to have children and young people!” “We absolutely MUST update our music and the words used in our worship services!” “We need to get back to basics and make sure we’re preaching the ONE , true message that Jesus is the only way to heaven!” “We need more programming for the 20-30 somethings!” “We need to welcome LGBTQIA people!” “Come as you are, believing as you do!” “We need a stronger, entertaining presence in the pulpit who isn’t too intellectual!”

Depending on your particular church, none of these things are wrong in and of themselves; still, the question is WHY do we want them? I think if we’re honest we will admit that concern for the survival of our churches is at least part of the reason. After all, no one likes to preside over the funeral of a church–especially if you’ve put your heart and soul into that community (like Samuel may have put his heart and soul into serving the Israelites). And these feelings are often as strong for committed laity as they are for clergy–sometimes even stronger, since even committed clergy tend to leave churches after a period of time while committed laity tend to stay in those churches for longer periods of time.

Yet, if our primary reason for wanting children and young people, catchy music and programming and entertaining preachers is to put bodies in the building who will pay the bills and guarantee the survival of our churches, aren’t we just using people to fight our battles for us, rather than examining our real reasons for existing as a community of faith? And what happens when people start feeling used? They leave. Sometimes they leave organized religion altogether, too. And who can blame them?

Here’s a thought: What if, rather than looking around at what everyone else has and deciding we need what they have in order to be successful and complete, we allow our churches to evolve as they will–trying new things to be sure, and not being afraid to fail and try again? And what if, rather than focusing on our survival, we focus on making the world a more peaceful, just, and loving place–even if that means “losing our lives” in one form of community in order to gain those lives once again in other more healthy ways of being with one another in community and in the world?

Just remember, be careful what you ask for. For what you receive may be more challenging–and in the long run, more fabulous–than you could ever imagine.