A blogless friend asked me to post this for her--some interesting thoughts:
“Our church is just like a family.”
It sounds nice. Frequently it IS nice. It's meant in a nice way. My belief, however, is that this (frequently) is one of the biggest issues facing the church today.
(How dare you say such a thing!)
Hear me out. Mind, this is not scientific. This is not based in a double-blind, survey laden study. It is based on my own intuition and experience. I don't have a silver bullet. I don't have a plan for you. I know there is a range of churches between “new starts” and the “dysfunctional” ones that I will reference. I know that this is not “in every case”. Oh, and I use quotes around “young” because I don't think that this is about age so much as action. Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, here's what I see:
I happen to be a pastor. I am a single lady in my late thirties. Like many people my age, my family dynamics have changed over the years. As siblings grow and some reproduce, family priorities change. As people move and lives change, family gatherings change. As traditions are harder to keep going, frustrations arise. As frustrations and emotions arise my family does what every good family does. We shoot the occasional miffed zinger at each other and then miserably suppress the rest of our anger. What does this result in? Personally, it results in my own realization that I have lost interest in family gatherings. That I no longer want to go out of my way to attend them. That I would prefer to find some “family of choice” to spend holidays with. Increasingly, this is what I lean towards.
My magic ball...er...Facebook feed tells me that many of my friends and acquaintances find themselves at “Friends-giving” rather than a family Thanksgiving meal. What's this? It's Thanksgiving, with people who you have chosen, even desire to be with on a special day. The host or hostess are the benevolent and fairly democratic matriarchs/patriarchs of this chosen family. Assignments are doled out for dishes. Pinterest and the rest of the internet is pored over. Fancy or unique versions of traditional dishes are created. Special attention is given to making beautiful place settings. Cranberry sauce can still come out of a can.
It's fun. It's new. It gives people a sense of having control over something important. It makes for a gathering of people who are happy to talk to each other. What it lacks are deep rooted historical family issues. It generally lacks people who have nothing in common. Traditions are able to change without great emotional consequence. It is easier for new people to enter and participate fully.
So, I figure. Everyone has at least some dysfunction in their own family. I had thought mine to be fairly functional but the older I get the less I believe this. So, here's the the thing. If you say that your church is like a family, there is a good chance (in my opinion) that you are right: That you belong to a church with people who love each other and who drive each other up the stinkin' wall. That you belong to a church where there are matriarchs who dictate what will happen. That you belong to a church with many historic and deep rooted fights. Many of which have been repressed and rear their ugly head over trivial matters (the fights are likely themselves, trivial). This may work for you. It's familiar. The Word is preached, the sacraments administered. Three or more are gathered in Christ's name and that's dandy.
However, you might be noticing fewer people at family gatherings. Some have died. It used to be the case that the dead were quickly replaced with the young. I don't think it is the style of music that's done it. I don't think whether the liturgy is (horrible terms here) “high” or “low” is what's to blame. I think it is be cause “young” people today have come to a societal conclusion that their family can be one of choice. That misery is not required.
“New starts” or new worshiping communities, new church plants – seem to me to have the greatest appeal to “young people”. Is it because they are sexier? (sometimes they are, in truth). Is it because they are bucking the system, man? Is it because the pastor doesn't wear a clerical shirt? Is it because the candles come from Pier 1? I want to venture and say YES and NO.
I think, that new churches are like Friends-giving. It is a chance to start over with people who WANT to be together and care for each other. People who want to be open and helpful. People who want to be able to have a stake in the family gathering. I think it is easy for NEW people. You know...the new girlfriend/fiance who found your family Thanksgiving awkward? I think SHE can engage and feel welcomed at Friends-giving. Likewise, I think someone fresh and new to church can feel more welcomed and included in a new church family. Eventually traditions will form. Eventually it will look a lot like the old family. That's OK. As long as it's about the community and its purpose for being there -that being the comfort and message of the Gospel.
So often, I spy these dysfunctional family churches trying. Lord, they try. God bless them, they try. They see the successful Pub theology/hymn sings working over at the new church. “Well, gee. That's it. We'll do that too and the young people will come!” My friends, oh my friends. This is so faithfully well intentioned. However, as I see it, this is the equivalent of buying the favorite beer of your son's new girlfriend so that she'll feel welcome at Thanksgiving. It's a sweet gesture. However, if that's all you do, what's the point? If you smile and say nice things to her when she arrives but later question her choice of hair color, belittle her politics or even worse...don't engage her at all, what is the point? By a certain point in the evening she will have sniffed out your dysfunction. Next year she may be at Friends-giving. This dysfunctional family church trying pub theology MIGHT be like your two quarreling aunts inviting you out for a beer. You might go to be polite and then you'll have a friend ready to call you so that you “must go” early, never to return.
When old fights and whether or not Grandma's old casserole dish is used becomes center stage, then maybe it's time to just stop it. Just, stop it.
Here is where my thoughts just kind of peter out.... This is how I see a major problem. I wonder, if one solution to the “church in crisis” is to close more “dying” churches and open more new ones. Not just relocate the same people into a new building. New communities. New churches. Start over.
I wonder, still, if there is a way to take this realization and apply it to the old, messed-up, family churches? Some kind of intervention? Oh, and none of this can be fixed by one person....your pastor will not fix your family. Your son marrying a lovely new wife will not fix old family problems. It has to involve everyone.
Ultimately, the goal is this: that everyone feel welcomed at THE table. That the host of the great meal, Christ, be met and honored and followed. That the guests at the table be fed, healed and forgiven. Anything that gets in the way of this – is a problem.