Reformation 500 and the unchurched
This summer my congregation did a great deal of research into the unchurched in our community. This was part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We are thinking about the call of the Holy Spirit to continue to reform the church, in this case, our congregation. One of our projects was to build a "Thesis 96" wall outside our church. We invited people in the church and community to write their statement (or thesis) to the church. It has been really awesome to see what people have written. But that is for another day!
Our hope through the Thesis 96 project and our Reformation 500 celebrations is to consider -- what prevents people from accessing God's grace in our culture, specifically our community, today? How could be better reach out to the unchurched in our community.
Track vs Field Understanding
Back to the unchurched. I confess that I often end up with a view of the unchurched and churched that looks something like this:
In this view, there are unchurched and churched people. Each group is divided into two subgroups: The unchurched has people that are really opposed to the Gospel (we'll call them atheists) and people that are somewhat open ("seekers"); the churched has people that come ("participants") and those that really are involved ("elders"). We could nuance this chart, maybe adding a few more arrow segments, but basically the idea is to move people from left to right. If they are questioning, get them in the door. If they are in the door, get them involved. There are tons of books written to give churches tools as to how to make this conveyor belt process work.
There are also tons of blogs/books written as to why people are drifting from right to left on this chart! Given this mentality, it is easy to feel like we are fighting an impossible task, running right into the head waters of our culture that is increasingly ambivalent, if not hostile to church, institutions and in many ways, commitments.
As we did research, which included looking at data and talking to people in our community, it occurred to me that this track or linear view was really inadequate for our task. I want to propose a more "field" than "track" view of the churched and unchurched.
In reality, there are many reasons why people are unchurched. Some of it comes out of opposition to the church or the idea of God. Frankly though, survey after survey shows that most Americans do not consider themselves strident atheists. Most people instead are out of church totally or most Sundays for a variety of reasons
- They moved to a new community or had a huge change in their family situation
- They were burned out on their church
- They were abused by their church
- They have never been to church and have never been invited (7 out of 10 unchurched people has never been invited)
- They work on Sundays or have made a commitment to their child's sporting "career."
Furthermore, there are lots of ways that people plug into church
- Some people are "all in" - "elders" who come nearly every Sunday and serve in leadership
- Some are homebound members
- Some connect only with certain areas of ministry - education or social ministry or a particular outreach of the church
- Some come when they are can, but are really busy
- Some connect only online
- Some travel extensively and are only plugged in when they are in town
In short, we do not have two or even four groups that could fit on a line. There are people all over the highway in terms of church involvement or not.
General Motors' Maven
General Motors has a subdivision called Maven, which is providing short term rentals of GM cars. It is designed to compete with ZipCar. General Motors has come to the conclusion that for certain phases of life, people want access to a car, but neither want nor can afford ownership. In some cities, people use Maven for weekend getaways, in other cities people use Maven to get across town and still in other cities people use it as their vehicle for money making through Uber! What is most striking though is that General Motors does not simply think this kind of car utilization is for a phase of life; it acknowledges that many people will never own a car, but will be interested in using a car. General Motors set up Maven so that even if people are not buying cars, they can still make a profit in the car industry!
To put this perspective back into our discussion about churched and unchurched, I think we should realize that just like many people today will not own cars, but will still use them, many people in our congregation will not be "all in" and may, in fact, never be "all in" but they will still be in the sphere of our congregation. Just like people are automobiles for different reasons and to different extents, the people who come into our congregation will engage in different ways. This does not mean they are bad or incomplete Christians or even that they only have a consumer mentality, but their life set up prevents them from being "all in."
Creating paths instead of a track
Rather than trying to move everyone along some mythical church conveyer belt, I suggest we embrace a far scarier task: Providing more (personalized!) paths to faith development. Let's assume that young families are not going to come more than twice a month. How can we help them pray at night with their kids? Let's assume that homebound members cannot serve on committees. How can we keep them connected and feeling a part of the decision making process at the church? Let's assume that the person who only comes to play in the handbell choir is unlikely to come for anything else. How can we make that 6 hours a month she commits to the church as faith filled as possible?
The goal of making disciples may ultimately have a linear or clear trajectory, namely, helping people see their relationship with God in terms of transformation rather than transaction. However, the map of people's engagement with the church is anything but linear. To put it another way, I feel liberated - my job is not simply to move people from an increasing pool of unchurched to a shrinking pool of churched. My task is to help the congregation figure out "faith paths" that can move people toward a deeper commitment to their Lord and the church, acknowledging this will not necessarily look "all in" from a church perspective. This does not mean that serving Jesus demands anything less than "all in"; rather, this acknowledges that being "all in" to Jesus will manifest itself in a variety of levels of engagement with the church, particularly one congregation.