by Maryann Younger
You’ve heard the depressing statistics.
You’ve looked around on Sunday and seen it in the pews.
Heck, you may even be charged with trying to rejuvenate your church, or worse, figuring out how to shut it down with grace.
You’ve sat in meetings about how to become more welcoming.
You’ve brainstormed about how to reach those elusive millennials.
Or how to improve the website to become more accessible and friendly to all.
You may have even reworked your mission and guiding principles to refresh and recharge your congregations.
And still. Folks are missing.
I’ve also heard and read enough conservative thinkers – and there are many loud voices in this camp – to know that the evangelical church thinks we’ve lost our way. One even asking, ‘What does liberal Christianity even stand for but for legitimizing homosexual desire and approbation for sexual permissiveness?’
Here’s what we stand for: we stand for the dignity of every person. We stand for loving each other, and especially those who aren’t like us. We stand for a loving inclusive God who is all about standing with the oppressed and the marginalized. It’s that whole Matthew 22:37-40 statement about loving God and loving each other.
But here’s the thing – we need to do more than stand for something. We need to move with it, too. It is not enough to wait for folks to walk through our door and to make sure they have a good experience when they arrive. (Make no mistake, that initial experience is really important, but let’s save that discussion for another day.)
And we need to admit that we’ve hurt folks. Hurt them enough that they don’t want to be a part of any religion at all. Hurt them with rules and doctrine that have no basis in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In fact, they seem to be motivated more by power and control of the Church, than grace and forgiveness in the Church. And to make matters worse, the middle-aged folks (full disclosure: this is my demographic) that walked away wounded have raised children who share their contempt and distrust of the institution.
So, what are we to do?
Let me tell you a story about one small way that I’ve learned to do church differently. I am a seminarian at a Lutheran, but largely ecumenical and racially diverse, seminary. I am humbled to be one of two sacristans of that institution which basically means that I get to help the worshiping community ‘do’ church. Except, for a bunch of reasons too complex to go into here, attendance at chapel services (which is not required at this institution) is declining. So, we decided to move to them. On Tuesday evenings, we have Dinner Church in one of the public areas in the main building. (While the name Dinner Church is often associated with a Eucharist, our is not. It is simply church with dinner tossed in.) Here’s the format: the volunteer leader chooses scripture, which can be lectionary based or not; adds a song or two; and then develops a few discussion questions based on the above. That’s it. Oh, and there’s food because we need to be fed. And we’ve watched attendance in this service steadily increase.
Ed Setzer recently said in the Washington Post, “If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past – not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old.” So, let’s go back to proclaiming the teachings of Jesus Christ and to breaking bread with one another.
Is Dinner Church going to resurrect the mainline church? I don’t think it’s that simple. But in this one tiny corner, we have increased enthusiasm and have grown in our conversations with one another. And that’s a good thing.
What are you doing in your one tiny corner that’s working? Would you be willing to share it with me? With the church?
I’ve read the statistics. I’ve heard the doom and gloom about our future. I’ve recoiled at the hypocrisy of the actions of many conservative churches. But I remain undaunted.
I know that God is very much alive in our world. The teachings of Jesus Christ are great examples of how to live. The Holy Spirit continues to breathe life and love and transformation in amazing and grace-filled ways. And that’s a good thing.
So, my dear Church: let’s stop our navel gazing and turn a deaf ear to the naysayers, and move out into the world together. You know, to love and serve the Lord.
Maryann D. Younger is an Episcopalian studying religion at a Lutheran Seminary after a career in educational leadership and a lifetime of applied sociology. The Holy Spirit has not yet revealed what direction her mid-life call with lead, but she thinks it might be in reconciling the hurt with the church. She and her husband live in an old farmhouse in Delaware with three pets of questionable heritage.