Sunday, March 20, 2011

Youthful enthusiasm (Sunday Reflections for March 13, 2011)

A couple church colleagues of mine recently linked enthusiastically to a blog post by the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona, Rev. Kirk Smith. Bishop Smith says that he is frequently asked what can be done to get more young people to come to church. In response, he quotes from the post of a young woman, Tamie Fields Harkins, who used to be a college chaplain in his diocese. In the post she gives a 20-point “fool-proof plan” for attracting young people to church.

I like many of her ideas but on one major issue I think she is dead wrong. I’ll come to that at the end, though. Here is Ms. Harkins’ plan for your reflection:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

2. Stop pretending you have a rock band.

3. Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

4. Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

5. Stop looking for the "objective truth" in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

7. Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it's pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don't worry: during those 10 years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

8. Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By "extraordinary music" I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have an uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

10. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

11. Learn how to sit with people who are dying.

12. Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans cannot live on symbols alone. Remember this.

13. Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

14. Be vulnerable.

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

16. Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

17. Remind yourself that you don't have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

18. Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.

19. Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

20. Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.

In conclusion, Harkins says, “This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.”

Well, this may be Harkins way of saying that she is presenting this “plan” at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In short, she is urging the church to resist the temptation to “faddishness” and following what secular culture says is popular. She is telling the church: Be honest. Be who you are and don’t try to be something else just because you think that’s what other people want you to be. Also, get rid of some baggage the church has accumulated over the years (e.g. prejudice towards women and gays, biblical literalism) which isn’t intrinsic to Christianity and has now become an impediment to its true mission.

So I would agree that doing most if not all these things would make a church better. I don’t think there is any guarantee it would make a church grow, however. Again, Harkins may be more aware of this than she lets on. But for argument’s sake, at face value her plan has one major flaw, which is a common one in the church. It makes the assumption that church is inherently and obviously attractive.

In this way of thinking, the church’s main problem is execution. It has a really good “product” but falls down in quality control and/or marketing. If the church would just be the church, people would come flocking in. Uh, no. For a young adult already inclined to joining a church, these ideas could well attract him or her to a congregation using them rather than to another. Unfortunatley, however, the reality is that church is just not something most young adults are looking for. A congregation could fulfill every one of Harkin’s points but many would still say, “That’s great but I’m just not interested.”

If you’ve read me before you may recognize this as another example of “buggy-whip” thinking. “If sales are falling then we just need to improve our quality or marketing,” this attitude says. It ignores the possibility that people just don’t need or want buggy-whips anymore, no matter how good they are.

Notice, however, that I am not criticizing Harkins’ proposals. Most of them are spot on, I think, and would indeed lead to a more genuine and healthy congregational life. For better or for worse, however, congregational life itself is simply appealing to fewer and fewer people. So by all means, I think congregations should adopt Harkins’ plan if it appeals to them. But do it for yourselves, to improve your mission and the quality of your life-in-community. Just don’t do it to refill your empty pews. That’s something you probably have no control over.


Michael_SC said...

Be sure to read the woman’s original post at her blog site, and the interesting comments. It was posted Nov 2010 and is still receiving comments.

I think the church’s style can be reshuffled, but unless someone believes the traditional concepts of God, sin, and salvation [and the rituals and the more-or-less constraining moral standards that go along with that] it’s hard to see why they would give up a few hours on a Sunday to attend church. Many people think that modern knowledge has let the supernatural cat out of the bag. Community? Yes, but you can also get that in a gym, work friends, hobby clubs, or elsewhere.

In my current reading on the historical Jesus I am trying to figure out just what was the essence of Jesus’ ministry that made people want to follow his approach to religion… presumably they had already been following some conventional form of Judaism… so was Jesus offering access to God without the baggage of all the ceremonies and rules [or is that a NT caricature]? Today, people already have full freedom, and if people want to access God, they think they can do that through prayer or meditation in their own places (with friends or alone). So, from the perspective of a modern person is not already committed to the creeds, what new and attractive thing does the church offer?

Peter Kane said...

I would like to ask Michael SC:

1. What suggests that Jesus was all about religion, in some form or other?

2. What suggests access to God was high on his agenda?

3. Why should the church offer new and attractive things - I have a sports center, restaurants, movies, tv,the internet, a local college. I have access to way more than I can use already.

4. Why was Paul doing community organizing? Because he had a thing about kosher food regulations?

If traditional church's solutions are being questioned left and right, why are we still fixated on traditional church's definition of the questions?