Scriptures of the day: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 & Luke 12:49-56
As we have seen over the past two weeks, many of the assumptions that we make about those who are spiritually seeking are less than accurate. Today, our journey into the world of spiritual seekers draws our attention to the way that they connect. For many church people, the most obvious way to connect to a church is through worship attendance. We have built our framework of spiritual community on “entering his sanctuary with praise.”
Today, our sense of community and belonging has shifted. People have friends that they may have never met in person. I know more than one gamer who holds the online friendships they have with higher regard than in person relationships. For many, it is easy to dismiss this new dynamic as false or lesser. This is not only unfair but is also rude. Many years ago, people had pen pals and charities have used letters from children who receive support to build “relationships” with donors. So why do we discount the connections people have in today’s world?
Social media and other online forums have become a part of the web of relationship we have. I know that I have connected at a deeper level with distant friends and family through Facebook and other social media tools. According to Barna, 83% of spiritual seekers ages 29-49 use social media everyday. We all know that there are both positive and negative aspects of social media. Yet, isn’t that true for every other aspect of our lives? Also, an overwhelming percentage use the internet daily.
It would be a mistake for us to not see how spiritual seekers connect and how they get their information. The death of print media is a glaring example of the shift in how people connect. Riding the Metro, you don’t see faces buried in a newspaper, you see folks scrolling through their phone. Of course that vision is often followed by a condescending remark of one ilk or another. When I was visiting my father he kept harping on the fact that I was on my phone too much. I reminded him that while I was on my phone reading an article, he had his nose in a book. We were engaged in the same activity with different means. Do we do this as a church?
Another aspect of the Barna study focused on what we now call “the third place.” According to Ray Oldenburg, who pioneered the study of third place, “Third places, then, are “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.” Our first place is our home where we have primary relationships. Our second place is our work where we spend the bulk of our time. In the past the church was a major third place in people’s lives. My guess would be that for many of you it still is. For spiritual seekers the third place has shifted from houses of worship to other public venues. Restaurants/coffee houses, parks and movie theaters are the dominant third places for those in the study. In the past, the church may have even been the default third place. Today, we need to “compete” for third place status. We may not like that thought but we can’t simply keep doing what we have always done and think people will show up. The definition of third place sounds very familiar. The church has always sought to be an anchor in the community and a place for creative interaction. So how then do we help spiritual seekers connect with that the church as their third place?
We need to begin by asking ourselves what makes Christ Presbyterian Church our third place? It is important that we speak to our friends and family about how we experience church as an anchor in our lives? Yet, we also need to be willing to meet people where they are. We need to find new ways to move beyond our walls into other places that spiritual seekers value. We also need to recognize that people connect in different ways and connect with them through those means.
Recently, we began to regularly stream our worship services on Facebook and posting them to our website. This is not only a great way for regulars to stay connected with the congregation when they are not able to attend but is an outreach to spiritual seekers. I have heard some say “it’s not the same.” That is very true. For most of us, watching a worship stream online would pale in comparison to being in the sanctuary. Yet, for some this can be a great point of entry. How then can we embrace the opportunity to welcome people into our lives regardless of the means?
Here are a few coaching questions for you to ponder:
Today, I am continuing my look at the recent United Methodist Church (UMC)/Barna study on “Spiritual Seekers.” Part two of the study report is focused on answering the question, “What are they looking for?” Remember, according to the study, “Approximately 50 million Americans are spiritual seekers looking for genuine community.
Like I did last week, I think it’s important to point out that the church has answered this question many times. Most of the answers we have come up with are based on our assumptions or personal preference. So, before you read on I would like you to answer the following question:
What do you believe that adults ages 35-49 are looking for the church to be?
In my experience there are a few things that we in the church often assume folks are looking for. A typical caricature of folks who fall into this category is that they are young families, with children who want contemporary worship and a Sunday school program. As we saw last week, the idea that the only seeker are young nuclear families just isn’t true and leaves out a large percentage of seekers.
Through Barna’s work we can see that the nature of community is far more important than programs. “Genuine community is the top driver of continued attendance. 3 out of 4 say friendly and welcoming people and feeling part of a community make them want to continue to attend a church.” Think about what that sentence is saying. The fact of the matter is that the Christian community has not always been a place of genuine community. The country club church where everyone puts on a show will never be a place of belonging for this or future generations.
What does it mean to be a welcoming community? For some this means we let anyone in the door or anyone can attend. That’s a good place to start but, welcoming is more than access. To be welcomed is about relationships. To welcome someone is to not just let them in but to shepherd them. It is to see them as more than a body to fill the pew. To welcome someone is to meet them where they are and walk along with them.
It is critical for us to pay attention to the highest drivers the study identified.
Personally, I am stuck by the fact that “finding out more about God” is the fourth highest. In the church we can’t help but assume that people are coming to learn about God. After all, for Presbyterians, that is our bread and butter. Yet it all seems to go back to genuine relationships of caring and support. When we completed the Church Assessment Tool this very priority rose to the top for our congregation. Our third highest priority was, “Create more opportunities for people to form meaningful relationships.” Here is a place that for our congregation, the internal and external desires are in step with each other. Like those outside the church, existing members and friends of our congregation want to have genuine community.
The other interesting thing that is important for those of us in the church to hear from seekers is that “good teaching matters more than worship style.” The worship wars that have been engaged in the church are more about the internal struggle than empowering us to reach new people. Here again, personal preference has trumped our concern for community. Churches have torn themselves apart over a drum kit and displayed the lack of genuine caring community.
One thing I have valued about Christ Presbyterian is that we have sought to be this mythical genuine community. At times this has been difficult because genuine community is not perfect community. Yet week in and week out, our sanctuary is filled with people who are willing to look past imperfection and disagreement to love and care. For some our time of prayer is, “a bit too much.” If you are coming to worship for a clean experience of God our time of shared prayer is far from that. When we share our deepest concerns or most jubilant joy we embody friendship, care and support.
This begs the question, how do we welcome people? Thankfully, I have never heard exclusionary words from our congregation. Yet we do need to pay attention to our exclusionary actions. A few years ago we studied evangelism. One phrase that stuck with me was that we need to “stop looking at people as prey.” That is to say we need to stop seeing everyone who crosses the threshold of the door as a resource. It can never be about what they can do for the church or how they can help fund the budget. Instead we need to see everyone as a blessed opportunity to expand our circle of friendship and love.
This week I would like to ask you to reflect on these coaching questions:
Recently, the United Methodist Church (UMC) released the results of a study they commissioned through the Barna Group. Barna is the “leading research organization focused on the intersection of Faith and Culture.” This study was focused on Spiritual Seekers ages 25-49 and was conducted in November of 2017. While the study was commissioned by the UMC, it was focused on unaffiliated seeks so the data is not denominationally based.
The overall results of the study may surprise you. According to Barna approximately 50 million Americans are spiritual seekers looking for genuine community. I’m sure as you read this you are asking yourself where are these people and what do we need to do to get them in the door? Today, I want to focus less on our action and more on our understanding of folks who are seeking something spiritual. In the church we often look at those outside our circle and try to tell them what they need. I think that this study helps us to hear directly from those we would seek to serve rather than make assumptions. (You remember what they say about assuming)
For our purpose the results can be grouped under four main questions:
Who are they?
What are they looking for in a church?
How do they connect?
Where do they find meaning?
For the next four weeks, I am writing a brief analysis of the study and hopefully I can help our congregation glean insights on what we are doing well and what we can do better to meet the needs of our community.
According to Barna, spiritual seekers are more likely to be female, single, have no children, and diverse. Now the margins in this study aren’t that big, but this makes me ask the question, who are we seeking to serve? Since the beginning of time, or at least since the baby boom, the church has focused most of its efforts on young families with children. I have seen this expressed in every Church Assessment Tool (CAT) that I have interpreted for churches in our presbytery. Even our own CAT ranked “Make necessary changes to attract families with children and youth to our church” as our second priority. This study questions this fixation on the married young nuclear family. Society has changed. People are waiting longer to marry and have children. The expectation that every individual will procreate has lessened. Yet, here we are as the church, with a model that see only the social norms of the past.
It is important to acknowledge that I’m not saying the church got it wrong. In fact, the church got it right for a given time. The issue is that we have failed to continue to respond to the culture. I heard one critic of the church say that we are not much different than the Amish. The only thing is that we choose to live mostly by the 1950s order instead or the 1800s. The reality of the church in this case is much like business, we must innovate or die.
Of course, this idea strikes fear into the hearts of those who have been in the church for a long time. Just as Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, we want the church to stay the same. There is also the fact that we like to be comfortable. The nature is not a comfortable reality. In this case the idea of the church dying isn’t very comfortable either.
So what does this mean for us? This week, I want to ask you to consider the coaching questions below. Perhaps they will help us to reflect on how we reach out to our community and spiritual seekers in our midst.
Is your own comfort more important than helping others experience Christ?
Is the description of the spiritual seekers in our community what you expected?
Who are we overlooking?
Do you know someone who fits the description of a spiritual seeker? If so, have you invited them to experience our community?