Yesterday, I attended the 114th gathering of the Presbytery of South Louisiana. It was a good meeting where lots of important events happened. We welcomed a new interim executive presbyter, installed a new moderator, commissioned a lay pastor, and received a new associate pastor into the presbytery. And it is always good to see so many colleagues (and hear them sing. I always say there is no hymn singing like in presbytery meetings!).
After lunch, we got the opportunity to listen to a church professional discuss transformation. What is transformation? It is a process many churches in our presbytery are involved in trying to get their churches back on track. Presbyterian churches across the nation are largely in decline. South Louisiana is no different. We are all seeking the way to help re-connect to the communities around us and again be relevant to a growing portion of the population.
The presenter showed us all kinds of interesting demographic groups and breakdowns of different types of churches. The thrust of the presentation was that if Presbyterian churches want to succeed, they must have a passion for a group of the unchurched around them and focus on being a blessing to that group.
The problem I have with this approach is that in the years I have served Christ’s Church, I find that different people go to church for different reasons. Some may enjoy the fellowship. Some have a passion for a particular mission. Others like someone on staff. Others still have many friends whom they connect with through the church. Some have a passion for a particular ministry, like signing in the choir. Others like to be challenged for growth and classes draw them. Others still look for a solid spiritual environment for their children or grandchildren.
To look at this wide and diverse group of people and ask them which group outside of the church they have a passion to serve, is to ask the impossible question. It might sound like an oversimplification but I think it was like when my parents would ask my brothers and I when we were all teenagers where we wanted to go out and eat. They got four different answers. I truly think most churches by their inherent nature will always have multiple areas of interest.
I know people might chuckle at this as being too simple to a highly complex issue but I think the only answer for churches like the Presbyterian Church to become more relevant is if their members had a collective passion to ask their friends who don’t attend church to come with them. It isn’t that our churches have lots of visitors who don’t return (which would mean we do have a big relevance issue) but instead that when we do have visitors they are not the norm and they stand out precisely because they are not the norm. And then we welcome them and hope they become just like us instead of finding out more about them, what they are looking for, and letting them know more about us. It is always about relationships in the end (both with God and with one another).
So, what if we did turn it around and make it the norm? And what if we did seek to transform, once we got to know them, and change according to the needs of our newest members and friends? There’s no question that our churches need to transform. But wouldn’t the best ones to guide us be the ones who have come versus the ones who we hope will be there?
Jesus did seem to target his audience. We don’t see him traveling in a number of cities and towns that did exist in his day. He went where he did with purpose. But once he arrived, he cast his net wide. He talked to the crowds and delved deeper with those who communicated back to him. Doesn’t this give us a good model? What if we saw our initial targets as the people our congregation already know?
There is no question we need to be welcoming to strangers. We should welcome them as much, maybe even more, than those we know. But our capability to ask someone to church and they respond positively rises dramatically when they know us.
I do hope our churches transform. Maybe the church redevelopment professionals are right and we do need to market more like a business. I hope the program our presbytery is working is an unqualified success.
But I would love to see our churches just try to see what would happen in a given year if we broke out of our normal routine and had a real passion for asking whoever is in our path, regardless of what group they fit into, to come to church with us.
What do you think?