Building Membership

A few weeks ago I began a litany of seven observations as to why people don’t go to church.  The first reason had to do with how we do our best to keep people out of our little social clubs.  The face of Christ is revealed in every person that we meet but I suspect that even He, given his politics and the people he hung out with would not be welcome in some of our houses of worship.  Here I will discuss a very simple solution.

How many hours per week did Jesus spend in the office? He didn’t. He went out to where the people were. That is what we and our clergy need to do. I knew a Presbyterian pastor who spent five days a week from 9 to 5 sequestered away in his office.  Most of his time was spent on homily preparation (which were quite boring).  His church is now closed.  In five years time, he brought no one into the church.

I also knew a priest who would prepare his homily on Saturday around three o’clock – one hour before the four o’clock mass.  His homilies were always magnificent and not because he was exceptionally good at extemporization, or that he quickly perused canned homilies for ideas, but because of how he spent his week; He was rarely in his office.  Instead, he was in everyone else’s office. When not in the rectory he was out visiting people. He attended every single event that was held at the church. If he couldn’t attend some gathering or meeting he would at least show up when it was over and always provided an opportunity to make himself available to the people. He knew everything going on in everyone’s life and when he preached on the weekend, he always incorporated stories of the people in the parish and how the life of the parish sinuously intersected with the Gospel teachings. His every waking moment was preparation for his homily and his homily was always a charge to to everyone to walk the Gospel walk.  It was all quite simple.  His church went from three Masses per week to five in a fifteen year span.  Two of them were standing room only.

Have you ever noticed how people love to talk about something which they are passionate about? Sports, movies, music, a trip, politics, their job, family? People love to talk about what they love.  The priest in the aforementioned story loved people.

I once attended a music convention for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians and I left re-energized and newly inspired to do my job. I came home from the week long convention and told everyone about it and invited them to join me next year. The following year, no one joined me and that was okay but when I came back, all I could do was to reiterate how magnificent the experience was.  The following year one of my choir members joined me and when she returned all she did was rave about how magnificent the convention was and how inspired she became.  Indeed she was a changed person and became more active in the church.  Not only in music but in other ministries as well. The following year three more choir members joined us and the next year four more people joined us and they were not even in the choir.  Not only were we reaching out to people but so were my choir members as they began talking about the convention to music directors and choir members from other churches.  One year we had about 35 people go to the convention.  Energy begets energy.

One of the conundrums that churches have is that they like to talk about their problems and issues. When Jesus stepped out of the boat and walked on water, he invited Peter to join him but Peter was skeptical.  When he saw the storm and the high waves, he had doubts and indeed he failed. That is what our churches do, too.  They look at the storm and they talk about their failure.  We need to feel as big as the sky because it is just a storm. Have you ever seen a storm on the ocean from a distance?   It is just a storm.  I’ve never seen a saddle fall off a horse so the church needs to learn to become one with the saddle.  To not be afraid of the storm, the horse or the saddle.  Ultimately, to be one with the Gospels.

So, some of us come up with new ideas and gimmicks in a churlish attempt to attract people to our churches and often times they fail. If not immediately, eventually. One of the reasons is our methods of PR. Putting an announcement in the church bulletin only reaches the people who come to church and who read the bulletin.   Many people are also not interested in our movie night because they have Netflix.  Others are not interested in our educational programs because either they are too busy or we fail to inspire them to apply what they learn from those programs.   Algebra and geometry are perfect examples.  If you teach only the formula, it is difficult to understand.  But, if you teach real world application, they become valuable tools.  Just ask any construction worker or home owner who likes to fixit themselves. 

There is a church who about 25 years ago had a women’s club who made it their mission to spend the year talking about their church to people in the community seven days a week. It could be a passing comment or an invitation, but they would talk about the church, the people, about the activities, the coffee hour, what they did as far as ministries and they wouldn’t be preachy about it, either. The church saw significant growth over a period of five years all because of simple physics: Energy begets energy. As people joined, they too, from example, talked about the church to other people, made invitations and even more people joined. Soon the church was filled with life and many active groups. Then they stopped their outreach and enjoyed the fruits of their labor. The children of that growth spurt are now grown up and gone, those new members are now elderly and the church is now struggling, not seeing any new growth.

It is not enough talk to our friends and family members. We already know them and they probably already go to church if not the same one.  We need to reach out to the stranger and the lepers among us. I never understood fear and prejudice, that’s not how I was raised but our parole shelters, AA meetings and food pantries are bursting at the seams with people who don’t go to church but may partake in its largess.  I know a wealthy church who sponsors a weekly soup kitchen and they serve about 200 people each week.  Strangely, none of those 200 attend that church.

Jesus sat with ordinary people. He even sat down with even the disreputable.  Public opinion was never a problem with Jesus. He was a genuine human person, a real brother to the poor, the weak, the sick, the alienated. He was not a benefactor, or a patron, or a philanthropist – but a brother. 

In this lies the greatness of Jesus. To have real power and influence one does not control or manipulate. One serves and builds and loves.   Some people may come for the movie night or the free food, but what will make them come back is the listening ear and the welcoming embrace.

Immanuel, a name which means “God is with us.”  It does not mean that God solves our problems, shows us the way out of our confusion, or offers answers for our many questions.  It means he is with us, willing to enter with us into our problems, confusions, and questions.  

I used to answer a suicide hotline and the first skill we were trained in was listening, being quiet and being present.  My greatest successes and breakthroughs were when I said nothing.  Henri Nouwen wrote, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.”
We, do not aspire to suffer with others.  On the contrary, we develop methods and techniques that allow us to stay away from pain.  Hospitals, nursing homes, rest homes, funeral homes, they all often become places to hide the sick, the suffering, and the dead.   Suffering is unattractive, repelling and disgusting.  The less we are confronted with it, the better.  It is something we want to avoid at all cost.  Among some people, compassion is not among our most natural responses.

But, in times of trial, if someone were to say to us, “I do not know what to say or what to do, but I want you to realize that I am with you, that I will not leave you alone,” we have a friend through whom we can find consolation and comfort.

What really counts, is that in the moments of pain and suffering, someone stays with us.  More important than any particular action, or word of advice, is the simple presence of someone who cares.  They show solidarity with us by willingly entering the dark spaces
of our lives.  For this reason, they, like God, are the ones who bring hope and help us discover new directions.  From the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Not because mourning is good, but because they shall be comforted.
  Do our churches comfort or have really good card parties and pot lucks? 

Courage is not the absence of fear.  Courage is dong what we need to do or is the right thing to do.  Even in the presence of fear.  Many people are afraid of bees because bees can sting and it hurts. Some people will even kill a bee on sight not realizing or, with little concern, that these industrious little insects are responsible for most of the fruit and vegetables which we consume on a daily basis. Something we hate and fear so much is also extremely valuable to us. Some of the people we hate and fear are strangers and lepers and, just like bees, they can bring value to our churches but first we need to go to where they are because they certainly won’t come to us.  They have a perception that the church is full of hypocrites.  Hate begets hate and the people who bash the church the most are the people whom the church has had a history of turning away.  It is simple social physics.  hate begets hate.  Energy begets energy.

My sister was a Jehovah’s Witness and instead of going door to door, she spent every day at the parole shelter assisting the men with transportation, support and navigating the DSS.  She brought over 50 men into her church. Some of them got jobs and some additionally got married in the church.  Many of them brought skills of construction, plumbing and electrical experience and volunteered their services to the church and its membership in appreciation for the kindness, grace and mercy it offered.  Energy begets energy.

I recently attended a one-day retreat where there was a panel of five clergy who talked about why they chose the church as their career.  A lot of the priests talked about their passion for Jesus.  One priest had an inner city church and talked of her (Episcopal) passion for the people.  At the end of the retreat, the panelists fielded questions from the assembled.   A question was asked “Is it possible to turn Jesus into a ‘Golden Idol?'”  The woman priest said “Absolutely. It is easy to worship the messenger but fail to hear his message.  Just look no further than the Crusades where we killed people in Jesus’ name.”   The only priest who passed on answering that question was one from an affluent parish who had admitted to have been attracted to the church because of his love for liturgy, pageantry, candles, mystery, couture finery, documents and education.  He never once mentioned people in any of his answers.

It was also interesting to note that none of the clergy had a eureka moment or were struck by lightning when they fell in love with church/Jesus/ministry.  They all said it was a gradual process. One salient life moment they all had in common was that  there was one person in each of their lives who first made an invitation.

I know, strangers can be scary to approach but some of the greatest saints were murderers first. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Imagine what could happen if all people did something. Jesus said in the book of Revelations that if a church is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm, it is like spit in his mouth and he will spew it out.  I suspect that many churches today are lukewarm.

We turn to God when our foundations are shaking only to learn that it is God who is shaking them.  If the foundation of our churches are shaking we can let the walls crumble around us or we can go out into the world to get help. So with that in mind, do as St. Vincent de Paul suggests, “If a needy person requires medicine or other help during your prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind.  Offer that deed to God as your prayer.  Do not become upset or feel guilty because you use your prayer time to serve the poor.  God is not neglected if you leave him for real service.  You should prefer the service of the poor to making your prayer. For, it is not enough to love God, if, your neighbor does not also love  God.”

-Malcolm Kogut.


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