Several things have begun to strike me in the past couple of days regarding the Christian faith.
Once again, yesterday, a group of us was reminded about the decline in membership in most congregations in the ELCA. Last year, our particular synod was involved in a survey given to congregation pastors and council members. The report will be forthcoming in the near future. However, my bishop did let us in on a couple of insights gleaned from those reports: #1. Start talking in a language we can understand. #2. Help us grow.
The bishop responded to the thoughts of some by saying, "I know that sounds like, 'Help us get butts in the pews, but...'"
Yes, I agree with my bishop. It sounds like, "Help us get butts in the pews," but when my bishop challenged the assumption, I was elated. Getting butts in the pews isn't just getting butts in the pews to pay bills or otherwise. Getting butts in the pews is evangelism--plain and simple. When a congregation proclaims the Gospel, butts get in the pews.
Yet, I sorely realized just how inadequate my own seminary training was when it came to evangelism and "getting butts in the pews." Don't get me wrong, we talked long and hard about what Jesus' death and resurrection meant for the world, but there was a huge problem that I think I am only now starting to realize. I think it's also the problem I often clash with others when it comes to doing mission and ministry in the local parish. It also has to do with point #1 above.
Start talking in language we can understand.
As I reflect upon things, the language that I was being taught in seminary when it came to evangelism was group language. So much of the teaching I received was based upon what the Christian faith had to say to various ethnic and social groupings: feminist, gay, African-American, Latino, etc. Much of the language surrounding the conversation was of justice painting a picture of a power over the powerless, and God sided with the powerless. The powerful could only be accepted if they were in solidarity with the powerless.
Justice is an important component of Christianity. Many within the ELCA have become convinced it is THE component of Christianity. But, I have begun to see, justice doesn't "get butts in the pews." For over 30 years, the ELCA has set justice and equality as one of its primary goals and foci, and for over 30 years, the church has been in decline. It just isn't working. Why?
As my thoughts coalesced, I think I am beginning to understand why. Justice focuses on a group dynamic. Plain and simply, groups don't connect to the church--individuals do.
Our folks want to invite others to come to church. Our folks want to spread the good news of Jesus. But when asked, "What difference does Christianity make for me?", what do our folks have to say?
"Um, well, I guess it means that God loves the poor and doesn't like the rich. God goes looking around for the rejects of society. God has a special place in God's heart for the gay, Latino, African-American, woman, etc., etc."
Now, these might very well be convincing answers, but think about the majority of people you run into. Do they share these same concerns?
Maybe in a different context other than my own. But I can assure you, most of the folks I run into don't. In fact, they have an entirely different focus in their lives, and they deal with a totally different set of questions.
In this society, hardly anyone talks about the Truth anymore. A lot of people believe all the religions are heading to the same place. Why then Christianity? How can I convince my friend/relative who is pluralistic that being a Christian is important?
My life is busy, hectic. I'm always running all over the place. I get bombarded daily by all the things I should be doing. Most of the time, I never get them accomplished. What is the good news for me?
Science has given us all sorts of breakthroughs and has taught us much of this world. It's based upon reason and the scientific method. How do I talk about faith to my friends/family who believe reason is the only way to know the Truth?
I hear all the pundits talking on television about how bad things are in the society and how bad they are going to get. How can I be at ease about the future?
I can't afford school supplies for my kids since I'm a single mom. Can you help? (How many congregations turn such folks away? How many others give school supplies without letting the folks know this is a gift from God Himself?)
These questions are different, and they require an entirely different set of answers that are not founded in group language. They are found in language that relates person to person.
I was not equipped to answer such questions by my theological training. Only in the last few years have I stumbled upon readings that have helped. But I wonder if anyone else sees this? Perhaps they do and are just not talking about it. I hope they do, for I fear if we keep trying to connect to groups within my denomination instead of individuals, we will continue to suffer a long, slow, painful death.