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!