Why Church is Irrelevant

Running Hawk of the Lakota Nation once said that religion is for people who are afraid of Hell.  Spirituality is for people who have already been there.  Are our churches filled with the first or latter and how does that affect the growth of the church?

People are leaving the institutional church in droves.  Many of the peripatetic people are not taking the time to technically leave, they are just not going anymore.  Despite that, there are a few churches in my area who are boasting that their congregations are bursting at the seams but they are just cherry picking their data.  One church dropped from five Masses each weekend down to two.  The priest at that church reports that his two Masses are packed every Sunday; consolidating five Masses into two is not growth.  Another pastor was interviewed by a local paper where he said that his church has seen significant growth and every Mass is packed.  He failed to mention that the bishop of his diocese closed three other churches in his community and his church simply picked up the people who lost their buildings.  New people where not suddenly going to church, regular attendees just got displaced and had to find a new home.

I have heard all the excuses why people are leaving the church such as society is lost, or they are sexually deviant, they don’t beleive in God, they think the church is full of hypocrites, the church worships money, that gays and atheists and politicians and Hollywood have destroyed morality and our society of lemmings is blindly following.  All that may be true to a certain extent but those people are still not the problem, the church is. Ultimately the church is terrible at choosing which battles to fight and how to reach out to those who see the church as irrelevant.

A church was hiring a new music director and the best candidate who had promising ideas and talent turned out to have a felony record.  Instead of hiring him they hired the next guy in line who lacked vision, worshiped music and consequently destroyed their existing music program.  That church chose to die rather than forgive.  They failed to walk the walk and realize that Jesus, a convicted felon himself, while on the cross didn’t take an honest man to paradise with him but another convicted felon.  That church lost members who were not only frustrated by the diminished music program but some people left because an unforgiving church was not a church they wanted to be part of or thought they belonged to. Ultimately, churches would do well to replace their staff with people who only have the goals of serving God.

Each day our communities are beleaguered with violence, hunger, homelessness, drug abuse, racism and judgmentalism.  Meanwhile our churches are battling with issues such as, do we take out the kneelers or leave them in?   Should we have background checks to protect our children?  Should we put in pew cushions and carpet?  Do we buy a pipe organ or electric organ?   Should our music be more upbeat and contemporary?  Should we purchase a pool table for our youth group room?

Now to be fair, there are churches who address the big issues of violence, hunger, homelessness, drug abuse, racism and judgmentalism very well.  Most people would very much like to be part of those solutions but when the church bickers about something other, it can be a turn off.  The decision to put in a carpet may not be the reason someone leaves a church but it could be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Usually there have been a series of disillusionment or a longing for something more.  The church should work on ministry and leave the building issues to the professionals they hire.

I once had a choir member who didn’t like the fact that our church, the church she was raised in, was a liturgical church.  She longed for a more charismatic approach to worship.  She said that the church used an archaic and dusty language which didn’t resonate with her.  It didn’t give her comfort and she said that the message she heard each Sunday wasn’t worth hearing.  When she came to me expressing this ache in her heart and that she was interested in the local Assembly of God congregation, I didn’t try to talk her out of it.  She was no good to us if she was unhappy and guilt ridden.  I told her to try them out for a few months and if that style of worship made her feel closer to God and the community, then she had my blessing but, our door was always open for her if she ever wanted to come back.  We never saw her again but she became very active in her new worshiping community’s food bank and soup kitchen.  She went on to organize a mission trip to South America.  For her and her spiritual needs, she chose right.  She is no longer at war with herself and the church and now her battleground is with poverty.  Who knew this Milquetoast of a person had it in her to become a General in the army.  That is what happens when you have faith and there is an opportunity to turn it loose.

Another reason people may choose another church is for their Sunday production value.  People may have joined their church because of the music but, I don’t want people to come for the music.  Instead I want my music to inspire them to action, to be re-energized, to oxygenate their blood, to transform them, to remind them of a Kaddosh moment from their life, to be part of an awakening to a call for action, to feel joy.  Many church organists are just organists.  That is too bad.

The music we sing should not simply be a song that fits into a time slot like most musical offerings in our worship services are.  It should speak to the needs of the community, not preach to nor entertain them.  Much like the words of an uninspired preacher, music can also speak in a foreign dusty tongue.  Some of our music holds onto dusty words that have no resonance in the ears of society, not realizing that just singing those words louder or faster isn’t the answer.  Religious buzzwords and fancy octavos used to work 50 years ago but they don’t anymore.  This spiritualized insider-language keeps regular people at a distance. People need the music to speak in a language that they can understand. They long to sing songs that pertain to what is happening in their lives this day.  People don’t need to be dazzled with big production numbers larded with churchy words that are about eschatological frameworks and theological systems or warm and fuzzy theology.

Too many organists don’t see how pastoral and ministerial their work is.  I knew an organist who never played the same song twice in a church.  He would date each piece and never repeat it again.  People love to hear their favorite song over and over and if something an organist plays or the choir sings resonates with people, why not use it again?  The same holds true for hymns.  I fell in love with a new song called “You Are Mine” and I thought it would serve my parish well for funeral purposes and decided to use it every week for a month.  The confirmation class liked it and asked if I would play it for their confirmation Mass and the song became a comfort and favorite of the parish over time.  Another song I selected for a whole month was “All Are Welcome.”  The city was planning to put up a parole shelter next door to the church and the church was protesting so I thought that the congregation needed to hear that message over and over again.  The church lost the battle and the parole shelter was put in.  Some members left.  All are not welcome.

A lot of churches have drastically changed their gimmicky worship styles to include lights, stages, elaborate sound systems, bands, videos screens, computer graphics, cameras and big production numbers from the praise band.  In reality this is just noise to those who are really seeking an encounter with God.  It is a distraction that has little importance, purpose and applicability to the rest of their week, or for people who are trying to grapple with the painful and confusing issues in the trenches of their real lives.

I have nothing against tech, I use it myself.  I own four cameras, mixing boards, a switch box and the ability to stream live but I don’t use those tools other than for recitals.  If my church wanted to move in that direction for ministerial purposes then I’d gladly donate my expertise for that purpose but, the gimmick of a church “rock show” simply doesn’t make a difference in peoples’ lives.  People can find entertainment anywhere.  Church shouldn’t be entertaining.  Church  should challenge us and inspire us to do something with our lives.  Yes, many people who don’t know what they are looking for may choose a church that offers entertainment but, that is all those churches may have and it requires a lot of energy to maintain that illusion.  “Ignore the man behind the curtain.”

There is a church near me who has a full time youth minister and a youth group budget of about $50,000 per year.  The youth have their own service, plan all the music and readings and no adults are permitted to attend that service.  The music by most standards would be  deemed liturgically inappropriate for they use pop songs in place of sacred music such as “Lean on Me” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”  They average over 200 teens each week and despite that, they don’t have a collection anymore because it would usually yield about ten bucks.   Their swanky teen lounge sports a pool table, ping pong table, Foosball table, several sofas, a small kitchen, a 54 inch flat screen TV, a game console and WiFi.  Post service activity include copious amounts of pizza and soda.  For a teen on Sunday night, it’s the place to be.  When the teens graduate high school, they are not permitted to come back because they are now adults nor do they bother to join the church they don’t know.  The whole program is a wash financially and only gives an outward appearance of being spiritually alive, active and having a reputation for success.  I’m sure many will disagree about the efficacy of the program but the numbers don’t lie because on Sunday morning the youngest person in attendance at the normal Mass is 60 years old because the kids just don’t ever come back.  I bet most youth programs are much the same.  Dollar for dollar, they are not a very good investment. Kids, like adults, yearn for a message worth sharing and an opportunity to act on it and make a difference, but it’s hard to hear that message above gimmicky pyrotechnics.

Some friends of mine heard that message and sent their daughter to Arizona one summer to help build housing for the poor.  She came back a different person, with vision, drive and the decision to dedicate her life in service of the poor.  She really wants to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church but we know that isn’t going to happen.  That’s another issue which drives our contemporary society away.  Like many issues, the church is usually on the other side of popular opinion.

I knew a Methodist pastor who wanted to start a satellite church in a strip mall in a poor section of a nearby city.  They would move their food pantry there and offer counseling with meeting rooms and ancillary worship space.  His parish council shot down the idea citing that it would be expensive and they wouldn’t have the volunteers to run it.  I applaud the pastor’s vision – instead of trying to lure people to the church, to instead go out to where the people already are.  Just because the parish council didn’t think anyone in the parish would volunteer didn’t mean that once people found out about this ministry they wouldn’t take part or join.  Especially people in the community where this vital ministry would have been offered.  The parish council couldn’t see past its own building. Ironically this church has a large wooden sign above their front door which can only be seen as you leave the church to the parking lot.  It says “Enter.” When you leave the church you are entering the mission field.  The best way to reach the people who don’t come to church is to get out of the building and go to them.  Get out of the building!

Churches don’t walk the walk.  My dear friend Maggie’s husband was arrested for a consensual yet illegal sex crime with a teenager.  They were immediately ostracized from their church (as was the victim, strangely).  When they approached the pastors at several other churches about joining, the answer was always the same; they were not welcome.  Some churches are not very forgiving or loving or welcoming.  That was too bad for the many churches who turned their backs on them as Maggie and her husband are very well off financially and tithe over $100 weekly.  Unable to find a church who accepted sinners, they formed their own little living room church with several friends who were more forgiving and they all left their respective churches to create their own.

When two hurricanes struck my area, I went out with a small band of volunteers to help people with cleanup.  We encountered many people who lost their homes and were sleeping in their cars.  When they called FEMA for help, they were told to call Catholic Charities who told them to call United Way who told them to call Family and Children’s Services who told them to call 211 who told them to call . . . FEMA!  Many of these people haven’t had a good meal, a shower or clean clothes and were living day by day waiting for help to arrive.  I knew there was nothing I could do to fix their dilemma but I was telling Maggie that I wanted to help them in some small way that could at least give them hope.  That Sunday when Maggie’s living room church of about ten people gathered, she raised $5,000.  I then went out with the cash and when I encountered people living in their car or in distress, I gave them $100 a piece and told them to go get a good meal, go get a good night sleep in a hotel, or go buy some necessities.  That little band of ostracized sinners did more for the homeless than a church full of “good” people.

So, if Jesus spent his time with prostitutes, murderers, thieves, lepers and outcasts, why can’t the church?  Hate begets hate and when the church hates, they lose but, they don’t know it.  They don’t know what they don’t know.  In reality, all are not welcome in our churches despite the pastors regurgitating it on Sunday.  That is part of the reason people are leaving the church because some of us are honest to admit that we are sinners and know that the “good” people in our churches would not accept us if they knew the truth. So you see, the people who don’t go to church are not the problem, the church and its “good people” are the problem. If they would stop praying, preaching, judging, diagnosing, denying and just simply welcome, that would make all the difference.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are walking away from faith, it just means faith is more attainable somewhere else. Maybe if the church pulled its praying hands apart, their arms would be open for embracing and welcoming rather than denying.

Occam’s razor (developed by Ockham) is the law of parsimony. It is a problem solving principle which posits that it is pointless to do something with more when it can be done with less.  In other words, simplicity is your best bet. When faced with a decision on which is the most likely strategy to be successful, generally, the most simple choice is the most efficient.

Here is an example of Occam’s Razor in my life.  I volunteer for a cable access show each week and it took my predecessor an hour to set up the studio while it only takes me about half an hour.  The difference is when he put away microphone stands and camera tripods he would loosen them, fold them, tighten them then put them in their respective corner.  I would just leave them extended and put them in the corner, saving a significant amount of time setting up and taking down.  They weren’t in the way and nobody else used them during the week.  Likewise, all the cables going to the cameras are about 50 feet long and he would unravel them then have to roll them up after the show.  We only need about fifteen feet of cable so I taped up about 35 feet and now I only need to uncoil and roll up fifteen feet.  He would always put out 25 chairs for the audience but if we only have six guests on the show, I only need to put out six chairs.  If they bring a friend, I can always go get another chair.  Simplicity is your best bet.

The church desperately needs to be aware of the law of parsimony.  Especially when it comes to forming committees.  The problem with a committee is that all it takes is for one person to not like an idea or say it can’t be done and it probably won’t be pursued.  Much worse is to assign a task to someone and they either don’t get it done or do it poorly.  Committees usually have a religious agenda, an argument to win, a point to make or a cause to defend and while these may keep the church running, they are also the bane of many a church.  As a member of the staff, my preferred method of work is to meet with the pastor, toss around ideas then implement them. I spend the week talking to people about it, getting their input, researching it, then being a master of delegation, I either call people whom I trust or catch them at Sunday coffee hour and assign them a task.  Implementing deadlines and followup with each person is crucial.  I can get more accomplished in one day than a committee can get done in three months and it is the simplest route.

My pastor once charged me with the task of organizing a haunted house because our church youth group attended one and I commented that we could do better so he said “Then do it.”  I researched haunted house ideas, mapped out a route for our three story rectory and spent the year casually gathering materials. Several months later I contacted people and groups in the parish asking them to be responsible for whatever haunting I planned for each room.  Nobody said no, I had over 80 volunteers and the program was a huge success.  Several hundred visitors filed through in a two hour period commenting that it was the best haunted house they’ve ever visited and we made several hundred dollars from donations.

Showcasing parish leadership was key.  One year the pastor was in an open coffin and the choir served as mourners. I saved flowers from funerals for the whole year and that funeral room was decked out with dead flowers, wailing choir members and creepy organ music.  Another year the pastor and associate pastor’s heads were mounted on a fake wall and the secretary, wearing a pith helmet, stood proudly next to her trophy collection.  People came every year just to see what the pastor would be doing in his room.

After I left that parish a lay person took over the haunted house.  With no vision and waiting until the last minute to plan, she formed a committee where anarchy reigned, tempers flew and people who had no idea what they were doing shot down idea after idea.  The haunted house was a disaster, half the rooms didn’t have anything in them.  It failed miserably and they never had one again.

Occam’s razor can serve an individual very well also and this is where I think Occam’s razor can come into play for the person who is disillusioned or disgruntled by their church, the institution, the politics or anything else that leaves them yearning for something more: Withdraw your membership. Leave the church, leave the apathy.  Form a small bible study group with family and friends.  You don’t need much to run a home church, a bible and a place to sit is all.  Churches are failing across the country and they need to crumble more before we can begin to rebuild.  Many pastors need to get real jobs instead of pretending to serve the community and we need to let the money serving churches fail.  Church people are notorious for worshiping music, buildings, organs, groups, committees, activities and money.  One parish council I sat on discussed the need for attracting new members to the church – to help pay the bills.  That is totally the wrong reason for a church to exist but churches are businesses, institutions, corporations and are run by like minded lay people.  How does growth for the sake of having more money to pay the bills serve the poor, naked, hungry, dying and imprisoned?  So what do you need from a church that you can’t find in your living room surrounded by like minded worshipers?  The church needs to be reminded of the commandment “Thou shall have no other Gods before me”.  This is Occam’s Razor at its best. When the church teaches love, joy, forgiveness, death, peace and God, the people will listen.  That is all they need.  Continue with worshiping other things and soon the church will be an empty room.

A big problem in our churches is poor leadership and people who lack vision.  Something I try to do with all my ministry projects is to network to organizations and people out in the community in addition to the diverse organizations within the church.  When I organized the aforementioned haunted house I made sure every organization in the church had a room to haunt, likewise, I invited local community theater organizations to haunt a room.  I asked a funeral home to donate a coffin and a local contractor to build me a working guillotine.  The people who were not part of the church were excited to see their labor being part of something bigger and they even visited the church on Sundays thereafter.  They also never said no to future requests.

I once went to a Christmas party at a home where the host hung foil stars from her ceiling and I thought that would be a good idea for the church.  I asked the pastor if we could decorate the church that way for Christmas and he said if I thought I could pull it off, do it.  I bought 300 various colored and sized stars and spent two days building a fishing line grid then hoisting it up to the ceiling from a ladder.  When I entered the church that Saturday for Mass, I was horrified to see that our forced air heat was causing the stars to wave and twinkle, thinking they would be a distraction.  When people began to arrive for the four o’clock Mass, you could hear the gasps, oo’s and ah’s as people entered.  The following week attendance grew by 25% at every Mass.  The stars became an annual attraction with many volunteers looking forward in taking part with the hanging them and, the pastor even purchased a lift for the project.  Now I don’t know if people joined our church because of that new ministry program but, more fallen away members began attending again because something new was going on.  It also didn’t hurt that the pastor used the stars in his homily for weeks to come.  The true success to that program was socializing and networking as I was able to use that program to make contacts for other programs.

At another church I offered a weekly organ recital every Tuesday at noon.  I dropped off a flyer at that new parole shelter and some of the men started attending (probably for the free coffee) and eventually began volunteering to set up, pass out programs and clean up.  They eventually asked the church to use a room for their daily AA and NA classes.  In return they provided electrical, plumbing, carpentry and painting services to the church.  A few of them joined the church, got married and had children.  People often find our churches in the most unexpected ways.  That is why we need to network and be willing to step outside of our comfort zones and areas of expertise and hire people with vision and courage.  Someone may not ever think of approaching an organist to talk to about their problems but if that organist also skis and they encounter them during a coffee hour and begin discussing the new parabolic technology, it opens a whole new dimension of relationship which can be tapped into later.  Like my disgruntled choir member, acorns can become oaks.

A woman found out that I answered a suicide hotline and she joined the choir.  It took her five years to approach and talk to me about her suicidal thoughts.  She said she never wanted to talk to me about her issues, she just wanted to be near someone who would understand and care. It was a “hem of the garment” encounter for her and for her it was all she needed to keep going.

I once inherited a church with a lot of problems. What church does not have problems?  There were three music groups; the traditional choir, the folk group and a youth choir.  There were three directors for each group and they all hated one another and worse, they planted the seeds of hate among their individual membership.  I met with each of the directors asking them what their vision for the parish was and I remember the folk group director said “Vision?  I just come in and play every Sunday.  What do I need vision for?”  So I created programs where no group had ownership but all three could participate in, together.  It took about five years before wounds began to heal and I’d say it took fifteen years before all hate was abolished. The secret wasn’t in creating musical opportunities for them to participate in.  It was in the creation of non-musical activities for them to socialize in where they discovered one another outside of what they were competing with.  I organized a Living Stations of the Cross service and asked a few members from each group to participate by writing and reading personal meditations based upon an assigned station. When they heard testimony about each others fears, pains and struggles, they began to see each other for who they really were: broken and frail human beings.  When I saw them spending time together at the coffee hour, I knew healing had begun. Soon they began attending each other’s concerts and Masses.

Judgmentalism, ostrcisation, fear, anger and separation slowly and insidiously breeds distance.  A woman in adultery, a doubting follower, a rebellious prodigal, a person with a record, a demon-riddled young man with substance abuse issues or mental health issues; they all need a Church which will love them, nothing more.  People who are hurt and confused feel God’s love when they are cared for. They take shelter in God’s love when they look with gratitude at all the beauty they see.  A church who offers all that, they will feel it too. So if their problems are growing like a bacteria, if their money problems are a concern, if they lack vision and membership is falling, they have nothing to lose by embracing grace, mercy and forgiveness and everything to gain.  Like someone caught in a rip tide, they need to stop flailing, take a deep breath and just float.  Like the boy in the story about Jesus feeding the 5,000, they must offer all they have.  Like the people in my church who left through the back door because a parole shelter moved next door, God provided and more people entered through the front door.

God works through people. The church moves forward rhythmically like a clock ticking. The key is to remember, it’s the Lord’s church. Churches should focus on this truth. When they do, time heals wounds. Conflict embraces resolution. Anger gives way to joy. Emptiness surrenders to fullness.  But first we need to forgive and not judge. Is the church willing to do that?

Society is becoming more enlightened and many good people recognize that they are sinners and are still searching for a place where they can be known and belong. A place where it feels like God lives, and the people of that church are the ones who can show it to them.  Maybe we do live in a sinful, deviant and disbelieving society but it is those people whom the church is supposed to be reaching out to.  So, for the love of God; reach.  Step out into the neighborhoods around you and partner with the amazing things already happening in the secular world and all the beautiful stuff God is already doing there.  As C. S. Lewis once said, “We’re going to be really surprised who actually makes it to heaven.”

 

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