While I am occasionally prone to exaggeration, I am not prone to lying. I often say that most of our mainline churches are either stuck in 1850 or 1950 – and I think this is one of the main reasons they close. The church should be timely and timeless, but not trapped in time. It should take ancient truths and offer them in meaningful ways – and we should do our best to not be boring! This being said, it is a very had thing to keep with the times, especially if you have a lot of people holding you back. Before we can move forward, we must look inward and objectively evaluate ourselves – or hire someone to do it for us.
I got in trouble a few years ago for the following statement, and it is as true today as it was then. The main reason our congregations are dying is that many (if not most) of our members don’t care enough about the church to support it with their presence, prayers, and money. Most congregations get 25-33 percent attendance, which means that inactive members (I am not talking about shut-ins or those forced to work on Sunday mornings) have voted to close the church. They want us when they need us – a wedding, confirmation, funeral – but ignore us when they feel they don’t. Many inactive members of other congregations that I have met along the way don’t even know the name of their pastor! If you are inactive, I blame you. Don’t like it? Then do something about it.
I don’t place the blame entirely at the feet of inactive members. Church folks are not always the most welcoming, even though they all claim to be “a friendly place”. Our worship is not always very interesting or creative – we get wedded to a particular order of worship or a kind of hymn, and rarely do we consider what new-ish people and absent people would like. We don’t offer alternative worship styles or times. We create unspoken dress codes and worship rubrics that seem like secret handshakes. We rarely tell visitors where the bathrooms are or if we have child care. We aren’t always doing our job very well.
Although I have never been in quicksand, I have seen enough jungle movies to know what Hollywood tells me about it. I know that if you are trapped and flail around, you sink faster. Swimming slowly through it doesn’t save you either. What you need is someone to bring a branch or a rope and help pull you out (unless Tarzan is swinging by). Panicking or doing nothing only leads to death – asking for help and using it may allow you to live another day. This is how we get unstuck – we look at models of new life and we learn from them. We don’t follow fads – we don’t throw everything away – we keep that which is good and throw out the meaningless stuff. We embrace all of Christian hymnody, prayers, and practices. We discern what the Spirt is saying, not cling to what we have always done. We may not become a megachurch – that may be the worst result of all! What we should seek is to be faithful. Remember, God’s primary job is creating things. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about new life. The Holy Spirit is given as a guide. All of this means that the fullness of God demands singing new songs, praying actively, and going where we have never gone before. All of this takes courage, so buckle up buttercup – it’s going to be a bumpy – but exhilarating – ride.
Pastor Steve Ohnsman has served Calvary UCC (Reading, PA) since 1999. He has a BA in Religion & Philosophy from Wilmington College (OH) an M.Div. from Drew Theological Seminary (NJ) , a D. Min. in Christian Ethics from United Theological Seminary (OH) and a Ph.D. in Leadership from Alvernia University (PA).