Questions Churches Should be Asking But Aren’t

Multiple times a day, my Facebook newsfeed and LinkedIn homepage and groups contain links to blog posts and articles that, if put in one place and printed out, would likely produce a book-length work on congregational development or church growth.  The vast majority of these are about how to bring more people into your congregation and keep them worshipping with you on a very regular (preferably weekly at least) basis, giving money, and becoming more involved in the life of the “church family” (a term I’ve come to loathe).

Why aren’t people coming?

How do we keep them coming?

How do we get them to give more money?

How do we develop ‘leaders’ in the congregation?  (‘Leaders’–another term I think we should flush.)

And the answers are the same ones that have been given for over 20 years–at least since I started seminary in 1993.  The churches spend a lot of money to send people for congregational development training (including the DMin degrees), a lot of energy beavering away at implementing what they’ve been told to do by the grand masters of the congregational development movement, especially as put forth by the now-obsolete Alban Institute. And the promises of the movement have not been fulfilled. Both liberal and conservative churches declined over the last few decades, despite all the formulae promoted to reverse that trend. A classic example of over-promise and under-deliver. 

But the most important question has never been asked.  That question is this:

Why aren’t more people leaving?

The follow up question (the one we really don’t want to ask) is, What can we do to get more people to leave?

I’ve mused before about schools and hospitals. And I think–very seriously–that the church of the future needs to be more like a school or a hospital.  Schools are places whose main purpose is to help people learn to function in the wider world–and then send them out in celebration when they have met certain standards that indicate this is possible. There is a curriculum set (it has some flexibility, taking into account the needs and interest of the student); this is a plan to achieve certain goals and to measure progress. Usually, there is an expectation about how long this will take.  There is something wrong when those who attend that school either do not finish within a reasonable time, or when people routinely leave before they’ve met the criteria for finishing.  There is some expectation that the student will maintain a positive relationship with the school (and the institution, especially if it is a fee-paying school, goes to great lengths to provide a student experience to help this along).  Alumni/ae are invited to reunions, they are asked to sit on governing boards, or make financial contributions.  The school’s future depends, in no small part, on the positive relationship maintained with those who leave the institution.

With hospitals, there is a similar expectation that a patient will not stay a patient forever–there is something wrong if a person enters, and does not leave in better condition than she came in, within a reasonable time period. If the patient does not leave, all kinds of committees come into play to review the reasons. 

In both schools and hospitals, leaving is the goal of entering.  And there’s a boatload of people whose energies are dedicated to making sure that happens.  We don’t want people to stay ignorant forever, and we don’t want them to stay sick forever either.  Plans are put into place (curricula in a school, treatment protocols in a hospital).  Reviews are made by various educational or medical authorities to make sure that standards are met, and to conduct inquiries when they are not. We don’t celebrate when someone is held back from graduating or drops out of school.  When someone remains in hospital indefinitely, we don’t throw a party.  When someone leaves the hospital in considerably worse physical condition than they entered we do have a celebration of sorts–it’s called a funeral.

In both schools and hospitals, students and patients may come back at a future date in a different capacity.  A student may return (after other experience and training) to teach, or as an administrator.  A patient may return as a doctor, nurse, or other member of the staff.  But just hanging around forever at the school or hospital does not qualify the student or patient to take on a new role in the institution.  Having successfully completed fifth grade does not qualify you to teach fifth grade.  Having been sick for a long time does not qualify you to treat other people’s illness. You need to leave.  You need to see a wider world, to experience more of education or health care than you could possibly have encountered during your time as a student or patient.

Churches shouldn’t be smug about their retention numbers.  They should be worried. Because if churches bring people only to Fowler’s Stage 3 and no further, they are not doing their job.  The job of a religion is to bring people to the highest level of spiritual development possible.  When people move to something beyond a conventional faith, questioning institutions and symbols, it is doing its job.  But the likelihood is that people will leave if they start moving into Stage 4, and the church cannot accommodate their growth.

It is people who have left the church for a while, spent time questioning and exploring, and returned with a desire to share what they’ve learned on the journey, who should be most actively sought and cultivated for prominent positions in the church–pastoral oversight, teaching those who will be ordained, interface with a wider society.  But Fowler’s words ring true today, thirty years after publication of his book:  we still look to those who remain at that halfway point of spiritual development to lead our churches.  And I think that is holding the churches back.

You can’t teach fifth grade just because you completed it successfully.  You can’t be a doctor just because you’ve been sick and recovered a few times.  And you can’t be a religious leader just because you’ve spent a lot of time loving Jesus but doing the same old stuff in the holy huddle of congregational life.

Why aren’t more people leaving?  What can we do to get them to leave?  How do we create a good experience for them while they are with us, so that they will want to come back and share what they’ve learned during their time away?

Those are the questions churches need to start asking in the 21st century.  But we’ve already wasted more than a decade asking the same old questions, and wondering why the same old answers aren’t working.



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