Monday, June 22, 2009

Growth in Mainline Protestant Churches: Thinking Out of the Big Box

(reflections on Laurene Beth Bowers, DESIGNING CONTEMPORARY CONGREGATIONS: STRATEGIES TO ATTRACT THOSE UNDER 50. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2008.)

Laurene Beth Bowers, a pastor for twenty – six years in a congregational church, often asks questions about church to “post – modern” people, defined as those who are technologically and culturally up to date probably under age fifty. They say that God is everywhere, but that churches “think they have a monopoly on God” (46), that churches “only want my money” (15), and that church is a place for “everybody’s grandmother” (46). Yet she also hears that they’re interested in going to some church if they can find one, and, yes, they admit sadly, they do “need a grandmother – like person.”

The core question of Bowers’ book is how to reach that kind of post – modern believer. More broadly, she wants to replace the perception of church as “one more thing to do in an already busy week” with the notion of church as “the grounding base that energizes us to be involved in everything else we do during the week” ( 47).

Her solutions do not include modernizing the service to make it “glitzy" like the big box churches that measure "growth" in numbers. She would look for other ways to measure growth.

For Bowers, a church that does not generate energy for service both inside and outside of the church is “depressed”. Chronic symptoms of depressed congregations include “constant anxiety about money, fear of losing long-term members by taking a stance” on controversial issues, and what she calls “multiple hat syndrome” where the same people head all the committees. When efforts to “contemporize” the services fail to draw “the crowds,” a depressed church blames the pastor or the denomination (19).

She sees one “window of opportunity” in the postmodern believers’ interests in “spirituality.” While postmoderns think of “religion” as something preached by authorities, they like “spirituality,” which encompasses for them Eastern traditions and social causes. Far from being non – religious, she says, they are extremely interested in what the church can offer, but put off by the church they see on TV and in town. They like ritual, and come to have a child baptized, by which they mean “blessed.” They’ll come for a wedding or a funeral. Bowers disapproves of how, burned by couples who showed up for a baptism and then disappeared, some churches deny rites to non-members. She thinks a better approach is to group such people with each other in a seminar or cell, so that they come to the rite already part of a group with whom they have much in common ( a child, a new marriage ).[Read about another take on "spirituality" by Richard Rolheiser.]

Perhaps the central idea of her book is her understanding of “church.” Church should be more than a school where the pastor teaches, more than a country club where the pastor is a sort of activity director, and more than a service organization such as the Kiwanis club (46). She writes:

We embrace a relational theology through which being a disciple of Jesus means that we have signed up for service to be an instrument of God’s blessing through each other: We believe that God’s intervention can only happen through a human agent. (48)

This service to each other can take place, she says, in “designer cell groups” of kinds based on a common interest or common stage of life (56). She makes a side note about youth groups that function as mere social “fun” groups. “An indicator of a church’s emotional health is the functioning of its youth groups. …An effective youth minister is one who does social activities in order to … provide a place where the youth can openly share their faith and practice doing so in order to evangelize other youth.”

By “Evangelism,” she does not mean “selling” the church but simply sharing our defining moments of faith. She cautions against merely “being warm and friendly (like every other church)” to those who step through our doors on their own, because such people are already a “certain personality type.” A sign that says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is outdated. She recommends charging the congregation with inviting a diversity of people in, and she recommends service to the community. Building a Habitat House, for example, she found many curious about what had motivated her church members to come out and to do the work (62).

She recommends improving the church’s “curb appeal” (65-67). Where a “modern” member sees “beautiful and traditional,” a post-modern person sees “old fashioned.” Have members list the church’s artworks, furniture, relics in categories for “keepers” and “discardables.” The middle category was for any physical object that excited debate, and the agreement was, “We’ll put it away for a year, and if anyone misses it, we’ll restore it.” In the places of these objects, she suggests bright colors, artwork produced by members of the congregation (maybe in rotation through art workshops).

She cautions against letting visitors observe how things are done before getting involved, and she also cautions against involving them in committees where there are “a few positions open.” Instead, she says, ask, “What do you believe you have to offer us?” and put them onto it, or offer a way for newcomers to discern their particular gifts. A survey is one way to start, but may reveal a person’s interest more than a person’s gifts (81). A striking example of “gifts” is a talent for “visitation.” She recommends training for visitors who may end up dealing with people who are depressed or dependent or abused (81).

In every case, Bowers recommends that the pastor distribute “power” and “energy” away from herself to cells and the talents of the congregation – precisely what we at St. James discussed in our Vestry retreat.

She also means for the church to be reaching out even when members, scared of shrinking resources, say, “Shouldn’t we take care of our own?”

She says that postmoderns expect a diverse congregation, and will be put off by a homogeneous one. She explicitly recommends taking a stand for inclusion of gays and lesbians. In a digression about critics who charge that this is to deny Scripture and core beliefs, she argues the opposite, that the critics are citing authorities who themselves have misunderstood poor translations of Scripture (39).

She writes that, if a church is to attract anyone, its worship should be a source of energy to “handle life’s challenges,” to “heal traumas,” and to “work for social justice” (29). Her emphasis here is on liberation more than theology. “Social justice” for her means assisting the “have – nots” in assailing the “power structures” that keep the “haves” in dominance over the “marginalized” (88). Later, she denies all “dualism” dividing the world between “us” and “them” (116). I guess dualism is okay for her if it’s from the point of view of “have nots.” Leaving aside liberation theology, she makes the point, “While we may not all agree on what causes those social issues, we are likely to agree on a method of intervention”(86).

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