Re-engaging the de-churched (Church Refugees Part III)

Over the last week or so, I’ve been writing my responses to Church Refugees by Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. The way I determine whether a book is “important”  is how much conversation it generates, even within my own head. This one has generated enough conversation in my head that I have to put some of it outside my head onto my blog.

The last two chapters of Church Refugees are dedicated respectively to preventing disengagement from the churches, and to the possibility of re-engaging those who have left.  Both of these are worthy topics, and I think they’ve been dealt with well in the book.  I won’t repeat what Packard and Hope have written–I’d rather leave it to people to read the book themselves.  I hope the authors appreciate that I’m pointing people to the work they have done.)

As often, it’s not that I disagree with what was written.  I just think that what was written did not go far enough in the effort to prevent (or explain) disengagement or to re-engage the dechurched in meaningful ways.

In the prevention of disengagement, the authors tell the story of Julie, who was just on the brink of leaving her church because she felt it was preventing her from living the life Jesus wanted from her, in terms of how to serve the world based on her faith.  Her local congregation was involved in a lot of internal maintenance projects–things to support worship, their physical plant–but not enough reach to the community.  She felt it was “lucky” that her pastor knew her well and would hear and support her ideas about other ways the church might better serve God and humans.  The authors ask whether churches want to rely on such “luck”–not just the “luck” of the pastor knowing this particular congregant, but having a strong enough sense of self and vocation to hear her and support her ideas (the words “let me do it” bothered me, but I’ll get to that later), not having a “bad” day on which ego would get in the way of hearing her when she approached him, and the like.

If this is common (and I suspect it is), we need not only a new way of training ministers in most denominations–we need to look at a different type of person to train in the first place. As well, I agree with the authors claim that

If well-meaning pastors operated with better organizational structures and strategies, then the church’s ability to retain its most committed members wouldn’t come down to luck.  The solution needed is a structural one, not a personal one.

I’ve been saying things like this for a while.  Like here.  And here.  And here.  I’ve been saying that we need lighter, more flexible structures, for years.  I’ve advocated for a new model of church where people can dip in and out to be resourced and equipped for the journey–and to appreciate the various ways one can be Christian, admire the ways in which others craft a Christian life, without necessarily having to craft their own life in imitation of another, if that is not authentic or attractive to them. I’ve questioned the way we think about congregations’ “performance”, and whether the way we assess congregational success or failure is adequate or appropriate in the 21st century (if it ever was). I’ve questioned the model of pastor-as-parent figure, and the model of single-congregation participation, or getting all of one’s spiritual guidance in one place, or only being able to express one’s spirituality in one venue–and even whether a formal Christian congregation is the only place in which one can express and exercise one’s commitment to God.

We need a very different kind of ordained leadership than we have had in the past.  It will be hard to discern vocations for the church of the future, I believe, because church will have to look very different from the form it has taken in the last century or so (but was probably already dying in the early 1960s). Currently, there aren’t models of ordained ministers who can work in light, flexible structures, where they aren’t seen as parent figures, and where they are comfortable with congregants belonging to multiple Christian communities.  We get more of what we already have.  And what we already have is a clerical class who are, knowingly and willingly or otherwise, driving people out of the church.

Partly, this is the nature of clerical selection.  Conventional religion requires  leaders who function within the conventions–Fowler’s Stage 3 (of 6). And when our leaders are only halfway along the continuum of faith development, those leaders get very uncomfortable with those who develop beyond where the leaders themselves are.

My suspicion is, rather than the de-churched (or almost so) being spiritual backsliders, they are likely to be emerging into a more developed stage than the ordained leadership. And when conventional church structures cannot provide what is needed–discussion of important questions (without necessarily arriving at settled answers), ability to explore without agreeing, a broader definition of service–the person emerging into Stage 4 or beyond is hampered rather than helped by the religious institution. And the institution will either marginalize the person making those advances, or put him/her “in their place”.  On a completely un-churchy note (because faith is not, for Fowler, an entirely “religious” thing), one can call to mind how The Big Bang Theory’s character Howard Wolowitz is occasionally put down by his colleagues for not having the conventional credentials of a “scientist”.

Part of the problem in re-engaging the dechurched, or preventing disengagement, is most of our religious institutions encourage only those who have never questioned their beliefs to seek ordination.  Having left for a while, having deeply questioned the status quo, is seen as a black mark in the selection process.

Perhaps it is time to rethink this attitude.  If there is a serious desire to re-engage the dechurched, perhaps denominational selection committees should be actively seeking people who have left.  As Packard and Hope say, not instead of those who will minister to the more conventionally-participating Christians, but alongside them.  I think any attempt to reach the de-churched is going to require ministry to those who have left by those who have left.

It will also require a changed attitude toward those who return.  For four years in England, I watched, and cringed at, the annual “Back to Church Sunday“. (It probably occurs equally in the United States, but I was less cognizant of it.)  It is a well-meaning but misguided project to get people back to church who have not been in a while.  It welcomes people back, but assumes nothing of any great spiritual importance happened during the absence, and the longer the absence, the further from God the person has drifted.

“Back to Church Sunday” assumes a person who has left and returned will be coming back as a less-Christian version of their former “churched” self. Packard and Hope give that assumption a long-overdue thump on the head.

Re-engaging the dechurched–and keeping the soon-to-be dechurched from disengaging–will take new forms of selection and training for church leadership.  The churches can no longer rely on the pastor seeing someone in their congregation who reminds him or her of his or her (spiritually) younger self, and talking to them about a vocation for ordained ministry.  It will need to look for people who are very different from what already exists in the church.  And it will need to train them to continue to be a different kind of minister.

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