Doing Church

Recently released Pew and Barna survey reports on the changing face of American Christianity proclaim that Americans seeking a religious experience are willing to try about anything, don’t care too much about denomination, and don’t have a very good understanding of Christianity anyway. So what are we supposed to do about that, and how should it affect they way we do “church?”

Some years ago I developed an outline of how people enter and then grow into their church experience. It was a little like a Maslow hierarchy. At the bottom, a person comes into a church, attracted by who knows what, but driven by some personal need, perhaps even a need to which words cannot be given. Personal tragedies, desires for self identity or worth, guilt, a sense of obligation to do something truly useful in life, even the desire to find something worthwhile in life can all be elements of these personal needs. Whatever they are, they are intensely personal.

A person will stay in a congregation if they discover that it is a safe place, a place of welcome and a place where their personal needs begin to be nourished in some way. In their own time they will recognize that the congregation is not a collection of individuals each individually being fed. Rather, it is a gathering of persons in communion with God and each other who find joy and mutual support in that communion, and the new “member” will find his or her own place in that communion. Some of them will also recognize that the church exists to seek and serve Christ in those outside the congregation, and will move into roles that contribute to that work. And some will be drawn to the hard work of seeing that the congregation itself is cared for through responsible stewardship of its resources.

Personal needs; welcome and safety; communion with one another; reaching out; and looking after the welfare of the congregation itself are stages that proceed sequentially, but one never leaves a stage behind, nor is one required to move from one stage to another. However, when one does move, each preceding stage becomes an integral part of the whole congregational experience, and normal life changes can bring one or another of them to the forefront at any time.

There is nothing fancy or new about any of that. It’s old stuff, and in one way or another it applies to most any organization. Two things make a Christian congregation different than any other organization. One is the central focus on God in Christ through whom the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit can breathe new and abundant life into the gathering we call a congregation. In that power it becomes a place of miracles frequently expected and frequently experienced in hundreds of mostly small and hardly noticeable ways. The second is clergy leadership that understands each of these stages is only a manifestation of a far more central question: What gives life, my life, real and lasting meaning and how can my years on this earth make a constructive difference in the lives of others? In other words, church is the place where the intimate, naked, deep heart of the soul can be fully exposed to the full light of God’s presence. That makes church a place full of people at all levels of intense vulnerability who are trying very hard not to let anyone else know that.

So what’s the point? I think there may be three of them:
• Healthy congregations pay attention to these things.
• Unhealthy congregations have often drifted far from them.
• Congregational growth depends on them.

3 thoughts on “Doing Church”

  1. CP,You are correct, there is nothing really new in what you have said. Yet, you put it together in a very useful and thoughtful way. I often wonder, what can clergy do to help people beyond seeing themselves as a group of individuals getting their needs met. I think that hurdle is the big one. Very little in our culture helps us in this regard. The consumer mindset is, \”You will give me what I want, or I will find someplace that will.\” This isn\’t all bad. We should have some kind of accountability for performance, so to speak. But, my fear is that we don\’t have the new seeker for long enough to help them make the transition in awareness. Unfortunately, the things that draw many into any group have more to do with perception and similarity, than a desire for community. The need may be being at the \”hot\” parish with people like me.Enough whining for me. Mondays are tough.Thx for the post.Chris+

  2. Good comments Chris. I doubt if there is a magic solution, but if I find one I\’ll write a book and get rich selling it. More likely we need to continue the simple work of preaching the gospel while creating conditions in which others can find true meaning for their lives in the process of bringing meaning and worthiness into the lives of others. I was struck by comments yesterday from the principal of our local alternative high school. Someone asked him what was different about his school. His answer was that most of these kids have had very few adults in their lives who actually cared for them. In his school they are surrounded by adults who care, and that gives their lives new meaning and new hope. Isn\’t that what we also are supposed to be doing?

  3. From sitting in the congregation point of view – I think that the searching I\’ve done over the years was absolutely trying to find God and I was in desperate need at that time- so \”finding, searching\” were paramount to my ability to sit with strangers, to hear, really hear what was being said, and with great trepidation return again the next week. New seekers don\’t always stay long enough to have their needs met – but SOME of them do and the acceptance shown to them (when they aren\’t really expecting any) goes a long way in giving them the patience to find God in the midst of strangers. d

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