Church as Resource 1

I saw two things yesterday that made me remember a third and that tapped into something that I’ve been thinking quite seriously about for a while now.

The first was Kyle Oliver’s post on Formation with Young Adults. Do read the whole thing, but these are some of the lines that jumped out at me:

Young adults – those in their 20s and 30s, often called Millennials – seem to be everywhere, except, of course, in church. If we truly believe that the church needs millennials, and that millennials need the church, what is the way forward? . . . 

The challenges are real: Pew Research reports that only 18 percent of Millenials say they attend religious services “nearly every week” or more, as of the late ’00s. Religion may well become more important to the Millennials as they age, but slight upward trends do not change the experience of church for the young adults who are currently attending, where the young adult experience can be one of isolation and alienation. It is often difficult to form a critical mass for young adult fellowship or programs. . . .

What no denomination can afford to continue is the habit of trading on denominational loyalty alone. For example, in the Episcopal Church, campus ministries flounder when they say “We’ll be a home for all the Episcopalians on campus.” Many Episcopalians aren’t looking for such a home, and many more don’t particularly care if the Episcopal shield is on the sign out front.

A post-denominational approach acknowledges that the broader Christian tradition is much more important than the way denominations slice and dice that tradition. Denominational identities can help us form distinctive, authentic Christian communities that don’t assume a membership model of the past (“every Methodist will join our group”).

Gathering around a common Christian identity – core teachings of the faith, patterns of common worship and fellowship, a desire to grow and live in integrity – is more engaging than denominational differences. . . .

Online spaces are a primary outlet for all kinds of authentic expression, including religious expression. We shouldn’t assume that young adults demand that all of our faith formation practices have an online component, but strategic efforts can lead to additional “faith touches” and a sense of ongoing connection and belonging amid busy young-adult lives.

I was reminded of this later yesterday evening when I heard a report on Marketplace that has been excerpted for this article on the growth of the fitness industry into a $3 billion business.  Here’s the section that caught my attention in particular:

What is the “mind and body” part here? There is this quasi-religious, sometimes cult-y thing going on.

Well, it is a symptom of our times in many ways. We are an anxiety-ridden, stressed out people here, especially in the urban centers of the United States…. You know, there have been a lot of studies around millennials, especially not going to a lot of organized religion, but they are finding a lot of community in their social groups. And a lot of those social groups are manifesting around fitness boutiques, running clubs, cycling clubs. And part of it is, people feel better after they exercise. It calms them down, and there’s a lot of science around that. You know, you go for a run you clear your head … you feel like you can deal with your life a little better.

The irony, of course, was that I had just dropped off G at ballet and was on my way to the gym to work out…

I totally identify with this because I’m part of it. Furthermore, at least a couple of clergy have said to me that if they weren’t clergy serving parishes, they’d much rather spend nice Sunday mornings out for a run or bike with friends. And—Sunday mornings are precisely when people my age and younger gather to run and bike, and the majority of races are held then. Despite this, M and I have noticed that many of the runners we know are quite religious, most of them Christian (and Saturday vigil masses are very popular among the Roman Catholics for obvious reasons…).

The key limiting resource for people like me—middle-aged(!), middle-class/affluent, educated, white people—is time. Yeah, we may be cash strapped too, but the time pinch sometimes hurts worse than the money pinch (and those two are interconnected in ways that are better saved for another conversation…). If we are going to spend the coin of our time, then we’d better be certain that we’re getting a good return on investment.

If I choose to go for a run on Sunday morning, I can see some very clear, very immediate results that also point towards long-term benefits. It gives me an opportunity to be social by hanging out with my running friends (and there’s nothing like a twenty-miler to spark long soul-baring conversations that can lead to good friendships), I feel better, I can see the benefits on the scale and in my increased level of fitness. Too, I can feel confident that the benefits of this run will keep on going. It helps me stay in a healthy (and fun) habit that will keep me active longer and reduce medical bills in the future.

The goal of the Christian faith is to live the reconciliation with God effected through Jesus Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. It’s about living a life that is deeply in touch with reality and that strives to point to the principles of love, justice, compassion, and mercy that we believe have been woven into the fabric of everything by our good God.  My belief is that living this way should and can have a number of practical everyday benefits.

However, we as the institutional church have failed at drawing a clear connection for our current society regarding how sacrificing a Sunday morning that could be spent doing other beneficial things helps us achieve this goal and this life.

Furthermore, the institutional church has, in some cases, actively assisted in alienating people from the Sunday morning experience—even those who continue to identify as Christians. This is where the first two pieces also got me thinking about the third piece, one from Tony Clavier last year on the “Dones.”

Easter Sunday brought with it the usual railing from clergy and churchfolk about the C&E crowd: those who only darken our doors at Christmas and Easter. Some clergy heap scorn on them. I don’t feel scornful, but I have been frustrated with them in the past. Undoubtedly some of these are P3s (People with Pious Parents) who have no connection or desire for a connection to a religious life. But others are people who do self-identify as Christians and who do feel some obligation to show up occasionally. My frustration as a member of the institutional church is driven by the knowledge that if we all acted this way, the institution itself would collapse on itself and leave them no where to g for their occasionally fixes of public worship.

Now—what I’ve done here is set up some thoughts around people who don’t show up at church for a variety of reasons yet who may well have leanings in that direction.

I could go in a lot of directions from this point. This is what the question that’s been rattling around in my head for a while, though…

Based on the 2015 Pew Study on the Religious Landscape of America, 40% of Roman Catholics say they attend church between two times a month to a few times a year; 20% say they attend “seldom/never.” Likewise, 43% of Mainline Protestants say they attend two times a month to a few times a year, and 24% attend “seldom/never.” And yet, despite “Unaffiliated” being the category with the greatest numerical growth, these infrequent attenders choose to identify with a faith group rather than be called a “None”.

Now—this next part boggles my mind… Working from a related drilldown question on frequency of prayer correlated with church (non)attendance, 50% of the twice a month to a few times a year folks report that they pray daily; of the “seldom/nevers,” 27% say that they pray daily. (This data is displayed on the same page linked to above, just lower down.)

If we believe what these numbers are saying, there’s a whole lot of prayer going on from the C&E crowd or people who never do darken our doors.

What do we do about this?

From where I sit, clergy have a stake in institutional survival. They have to if they intend to get paid to do their thing and to have a stable place in which to do their thing. Thus, they have a vested interest in getting people in the door.  Personally, I think the faith thing works a hell of a lot better when people are coming in the doors and are doing things together because, properly done,  Christianity is a team sport (i.e., see any of the passages where the Body of Christ is discussed particularly those by Paul…).

However, what is the church doing (i.e., what are we doing…) to serve as resources or to provide resources for those who choose not to be involved in our Sunday morning activities, yet who still acknowledge some sort of faith pull to the degree that they would tell a surveyor that they pray daily?

I’m reminded too of comments from readers here who tell me straight-up that they don’t attend anymore or do so infrequently yet are still attracted by and/or participate within the church’s patterns of prayer.

Consider once more the fitness crowd. Here is a body of people who—whether they’re actually regular about it or not—believe in the value of disciplined, long-term activity for personal growth/benefit.

What can we be doing to make the connection here that hasn’t happened?

(And I’ve got no answers, just questions…)

7 thoughts on “Church as Resource 1

  1. Barbara S.

    Well, I think you’ve got to actually make the connection. People think the church is primarily about morality, and that “sin” is “bad.”

    You’ve got to make the case that (as James Alison says) sin is “boringly normal.” That sin isn’t bad, as much as it’s what we’re about: disconnected from the life of God by means of our own inability to help ourselves. And that only by looking at our weaknesses, failures, and faults can we go beyond them – and “beyond them” might be the key. It has to be shown that faith goes someplace – that it’s not merely about “making the grade,” or avoiding doing bad things. That’s not the current message in the church; in fact, I’m not sure what the current message is.

    It can’t just be that “God loves you,” though; that goes nowhere. And it can’t be “not checking our brains at the door,” which likewise goes nowhere.

    People today don’t like to think in terms of “sin,” though; people seem to have a deep need never to be wrong, or at least never to be thought to be wrong. (I think this is just a human characteristic, actually – but when the culture was more Christian, church itself, with its disciplines of self-examination and especially Confession was a reminder that people needed these things.)

    The point really is, I think: people just don’t know that there’s someplace to go. In the 60s, it was considered normal to “seek Nirvana” or to “find yourself.” Materialism has destroyed that at this point, I think.

    And there’s always Compline at St. Mark’s Seattle…..

  2. Barbara S.

    (And, for the intellectuals: show them that religion makes sense. That it’s not fluff; give them real, hard stuff to chew on.

    You would know more, probably, about who that is. Rowan Williams? James Alison? Other? I don’t really know who’s the most hefty out there; those are the people I get the most out of. It has to be somebody who can talk to the nonreligious also, without jargon. Writers, anyway, who think deeply about God, and what the implications of the Christian worldview are – brilliant ones. Demonstrate that it’s a philosophy with real depth and weight, as well as being a religion.

    That’s important. Church can’t be exclusive to a certain “kind” of person; it’s supposed to have stuff enough that ALL people can find a home in it. That’s its remit, and we shouldn’t – as you say – slice and dice it.)

  3. Ellen Brauza

    Well, my parish, which is Anglo-Catholic by heritage and in practice, and also co,pletely open and affirming and says so, is fortunate to be quite close to one of the campuses of SUNY Buffalo. We’ve tried a number of outreach approaches to students, but what has finally clicked is the Sunday evening we offer. There’s a high mass at 6 pm, followed by a good, home-cooked supper. No charge. Then there’s sung compline at 8 pm, and the evening is done. The supper menu is texted on Friday to students who’ve been here and given us their cell numbers. People are free to attend all or part of the evening offerings, even if it’s just supper, no questions asked — but it rarely is just supper. Growth has been slow but appreciable, and now we have two young adults who want to prepare for Confirmation. We started with a small diocesan outreach grant, to cover food costs and a tiny stipend for a pianist; we’re starting a special fund to help keep this ministry going. Over the summer, and during university break periods, there’s only the mass, but those who stay in town know we’re here for them. Some of the regular Sunday morning folks sometimes come in the evening, too, which I think is important — the young adults are forming community, but it’s not in complete isolation from the larger congregation.

  4. Ernest F.

    Maybe one solution is to take the church to where the people are. Something before, during or after the run. A Eucharist at the local sports fields where the families are assembling for the day. I’m getting ready to read An Altar in the World – Barbara Brown Taylor which I believe is talking about finding God in the world

  5. Paul Goings

    I would ask further, what of discipleship, what of S. Benedict’s conversatio morum?

    The early church was willing to ask some people to give up their profession in order to become a Christian. Until quite recently, most all Christians continued to take the concept of the Lord’s Day fairly seriously. And now apparently even the obligation to hear Mass on Sunday is up for grabs. At what point does it feel so watered down that it ceases to command our attention and devotion (and our financial resources, to be frank)?

    If we are committed to the idea of Christian identity being lived out in community, then I suggest that gathering together for worship with that community, as we’ve done for two millennia now, is also a duty to be taken seriously, at least as seriously as we take our duties to our employers, sports teams, etc.

  6. Brian McCord

    I will leave it to the big thinkers to think big thoughts, and just offer some practical advice:

    Saturday before dawn: long distance bike/run

    Monday: hill bike/run

    Wednesday: running track workout / biking speed intervals

    Friday: wild card, do what is best for your overall training

    Sunday: go to Mass, it’s a Precept of the Church. If you race competitively, limit yourself to 3-4 Sunday races a year and make up for it at a Sat vigil / Sun evening Mass as necessary.

    I have done this for 20 years, with a job and two demanding kids, and my race PRs are faster than yours. Let me know if you need help scheduling Lauds and Vespers / Mattins and Evensong;

  7. Derek Olsen Post author


    I’m well aware of what the Church teaches and I have consistently upheld it. It does seem to me that you are missing the point–probably intentionally.

    Where do you think the place is for smug self-righteousness in the work of evangelism? Do you truly see it as an aid? If so, I think you perfect illustrate the problems that the institutional church has faced and will continue to face in coming decades.

    Nobody is going to give a rip what the “Precepts of the Church” are until the Church has actually demonstrated its utility above a whole host of competing alternatives. A facile appeal and retreat to a culture-war mentality is a pretty dumb move.

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