Tag Archives: growth

My Quora answer to What are hindrances and obstacles to church growth?

First and foremost is that society doesn’t beleive in the church institution anymore. Churches are not called to grow but to serve. When they serve, they begin to grow. People are not dumb, they can recognize an insincere church right off the bat. They can discern which ones are ice cold, lukewarm or red hot. Most are lukewarm and that is their problem. They won’t grow if they are lukewarm.

Every church has it own challenges and obstacles. Most of the time the hindrances are the people themselves. Growth comes from many avenues: good preaching, good music, a welcoming community, location, parking, energy level, comfortable space, social opportunities, service opportunity and consistency.

A church once asked me to give them ideas to help promote growth and I gave them a list of 18 activities that they could easily organize over the course of a year. They said “I don’t like that one.” “This one isn’t something that fits our community.” “We don’t want to attract those kind of people.” and “Who is going to do all this?” I told them that energy begets energy, that they must incorporate people of all generational, cultural, economic and educational levels into a comprehensive program and, even if they start small they will grow. They whittled the list down to three and then they didn’t even do those three. Survival of the fittest. Not to act is to act.

I think the church needs to be offering the community at least one activity or event each week. Even if the unchurched community is not interested in every topic, at least they will see that this church is active and vibrant and may decide to give it a chance.

I took a church with three services a weekend and after fifteen years we grew to five services and two of them were SRO. There was no one thing that promoted the growth rather a sinuous network of everything. Everything was comprehensive. We got rid of youth, teen and adult choirs and evolved to a family choir. The youth groups didn’t do their own youthy things but rather plugged into all the ministries of the community and church with the adults. Our music too became comprehensive and we did away with the folk group, the traditional choir and the praise band. We did all styles of music at every service and no group owned a particular service.

My suggestions for a church looking to grow are three things; Pastors, get out of your office. Jesus didn’t keep office hours. Get out and be with the people. Establish a beat like the old timey police officer. Regularly visit diners, bars, clubs, senior centers, nursing homes, jails, courts, be seen and heard. Approach people and be approachable and wear your collar. Don’t do it to drum up business, do it to comfort, heal, serve and welcome. Go to the mall, sit on one of the sofas in the hallway and put out a sign, “I will talk to anyone about anything.” Pass out your card for further ministering and don’t worry about your homily. If these things you do, the homily will take care of itself.

Hire a music director who does not worship music, one where music is not his ministry but someone who loves people and music is the vehicle to ministering to them. This person needs to spend time with the staff to come up with creative and diverse ideas and programs and know how to delegate lovingly and compassionately. The children of Israel were taken as slaves of the Babylonians and the musicians were forced to entertain their captors but they refused and hid their instruments in the trees by the river. The Babylonians said play or we will smash your babies against the rocks and they still refused. Likewise, a true music minister needs to know when to put down their instrument and minister. Their job isn’t an hour on Sunday morning. It begins when the service is over and ends the following Sunday when they pick up their instruments to worship – not entertain.

Finally, as I said before, lots and lots and lots and lots of events and activities. One activity can grow into something big. I once played weekly organ recitals at noon on a weekday. We started with about 20 people and after a year there were about 200 in attendance. They didn’t come for the music, they came because it was the place to be. My choir started bringing in refreshments. The parolees in the shelter next door came for the refreshments. A home for disabled adults started busing in residents to get them out of the facility. Homeless people came in out of the cold. The parolees began ushering at the door and cleaning up afterward. The homeless began passing out flyers in the community. Pastors, choir members and organists came to network. Brides came to scope out the building. A police officer came in regularly to chat with the parolees to see what he could do for them. Eventually the parolees started to use the building during the day for their AA and NA meetings. The place was a beehive of activity and people started visiting the church because – something was going on there. As the psalmist foretells in Psalm 66: Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.

There is another thing, the church needs to give back to the community. It needs to do something that makes a difference. It needs to do several things that make a difference. People want to be part of something that makes a difference, not just sit in a pew and be entertained. When people visit or join the church, have ministries they can immediately plug into and I don’t mean things like altar guild, choir, usher or woman’s club. Things like working the food pantry, prison ministry, mission trips, gun buyback programs, homeless shelter, or do something revolutionary like Canada’s safe injection center (drug users can go there to shoot up without fear of arrest but medical care and counseling is provided in case something goes wrong. These centers have never had anyone die of an overdose while blocks away, people die from overdoses alone and unaided, hmmmph – do something revolutionary and save lives or not?), and, the church needs to tithe to some big program like California’s Housing Works program where they give houses to the homeless. Yup, GIVE. It gets them off the street and gives them stable shelter. A homeless person can cost your county about $20,000 a year in medical care alone because they lack shelter. With shelter and a place to secure a job from, they will be healthier. Dollar for dollar, homeless shelters are not cost effective on the whole and are only a band-aid. Check them out: housingworksca.org. Start one in your community.

Too bad the church can’t focus on some of these problems rather than worrying about growth and paying the bills. Pew people are not “customer acquisitions,” they are saints in the making. Too bad we don’t have institutions that fostered that growth and marshaled those forces. Oh, we do. It is called the DSS. They take care of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless, the dying, the lonely, the abandoned, the imprisoned, the evicted, the illegal, the incurable, the different, the despised, the abused, the addicted, the forgotten, the neglected, the invisible, the battered and the frightened. Right there in that sentence is an awful lot a church can set its sights on and grow – instead or arguing over whether to keep the kneelers or not, to put in pew cushions or not, or the new wall color, or renting space to the gay men’s community choir. Not in my church! Think of the children.

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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.”

 

Church Growth

I have had the privilege of speaking with several pastors recently about church growth or the lack of growth which many churches are experiencing across the country.  Some pastors are looking for gimmicks or programs to attract those who left and also looking for ways to welcome those who have never been.  Others are accepting of their size and diminishing membership and are desirous to settle for being in the service of those who remain.

A predominant reason people say they don’t go to church is that they consider themselves spiritual and not religious and that the church is filled with hypocrites.  It is very easy to perceive the church as being filled with people who are “holier than thou.”  It is also  very easy for the church to attract or foster people who “protest too much” in an effort to hide their own sinful nature.  It is easy for good people to be judgmental especially if they secretly recognize sinful desire in their own hearts.  On top of that, when some crime occurs in a church, we might discover that the perp was a pillar of the community, a lector, secretary, youth group leader, pastor or Eucharistic minister.

It is not that the church attracts bad people.  The truth is everyone has the capacity to be a “bad” person.  There was a study by Wallerstein and Wylie where they asked 3,000 NY citizens who have never been arrested about all the things they had done in their lives.  100% of them have committed misdemeanors and were never caught and 97% had committed felonies but have never been caught.  So if you’ve never been caught, you must be a good person despite the bad things you’ve gotten away with.

About fifteen years ago I vacationed in Canada with a friend who illegally brought back Cuban cigars and prescription drugs which you couldn’t buy in the US but they were available in Canada.  I thought it was very funny that I got flagged for a search and he, a Roman Catholic priest, waltzed right through.

Today, churches often run background checks on its members in an effort to weed out the sinners.  It is good that they want to make safe sanctuaries but they need to keep in mind that most saints such as St. Paul and even Jesus, a convicted felon himself, would not be welcome in our churches for none of them would pass their background checks.  Part of the problem with organized religion is that it represents only a tiny part of the story and one that is often dangerously dysfunctional at that.

People of adversity find strength within themselves and they think that that has to do with finding meaning.  Instead of finding meaning we should call it forge for meaning for finding and searching are two different things.  Endurance is the entry way to forging meaning and, being accepted into a community is the only place that that can happen.  When we forge meaning we can incorporate that meaning into a new identity and that is what the church needs.  We need to take our faults and traumas and make them part of who we’ve come to be and we need to fold the worst events of our lives into a narrative of triumph as a response of things that hurt.  Instead the church tries hard to deny this.

I once encouraged a church to start a prison ministry and the response was that they didn’t want to attract or associate with those kind of people.  What they failed to realize was that those people were already in the parish as convicted arsonists, drug users, DWI perps, a sex offender and burglar.  A few years later one of their 20 year old boys was arrested for dealing drugs and it still didn’t dawn on them that they had the capacity to heal and the healing needed to happen in their own back yard.

When it was found out that I answered a suicide hotline, a woman grabbed me after a church service, broke down in tears and told me that her brother was arrested for committing a sex crime with a teenager, then completed suicide while in jail.  We spoke for quite some time and afterward I told the pastor what had happened so that he could be aware of the situation.  Instead of being compassionate, he became angry that the woman would confide in me and not him.  Of course, this was in a parish who abandoned a former pastor who was arrested on a DWI charge. She never trusted anyone in the parish with her pain and she carried it silently for many years.

A woman who was raped as a teenager seemingly had her life destroyed.  She dropped out of school, gave birth to the child of the rapist and never went to college or forged a career of her own.  At the age of fifty she was asked if she ever thought of the rapist and she said she did and she felt sorry for him because, he has a beautiful daughter and two beautiful grandchildren and he doesn’t know that and she does.  As it turns out, she considers herself the lucky one.  She credits the support and love of her community for the blessings in her life.

Some things we are born to; our race, a disability, our sexuality, our gender and some are things that happen to us; being a rape victim, a prisoner, a Katrina survivor, a 9/11 survivor.  Religious identity means being able to enter into a church community to draw strength from that community and to give strength there too.  A church community is not for someone to enter in and say “I am here and I hurt,” but rather “I hurt and I am here.”  But we are ashamed, judgmental and can’t tell our stories to the “good people” but our stories are the foundation of identity.

Just as the stories we tell come from our life experiences, our lives can grow from the stories that we tell.  The bible is filled with such stories of healing, joy, forgiveness and com-passion (suffering with one another).  That is the key; one another and, you won’t find that on a Facebook page.  Instead, the church looks for ways to attract the wrong people because the church is interested in numbers and money.  If the church’s goal is to promote healing and acceptance through pain and struggle, numbers and money will be the symptom thereof.  Currently, that calling is being lived out through social services and other organizations and they are doing a better job than the church is.   So, who needs the church . . .

It isn’t solely about changing ourselves but about changing the world.  It doesn’t make what is wrong right but makes what is wrong precious and you won’t learn that from social services.  The road less traveled is what makes all the difference and the church is abandoning that road.  We can not be ourselves without the misfortune that drives our search for meaning.  “I take pleasure in infirmities,” St. Paul wrote, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  The church is trying to be strong while denying its weakness and driving out people it thinks will make them weak.

Oppression breeds the power to oppose it and that is the cornerstone of identity.  However, you can’t change the church if you don’t belong to it.  If a church is full of hypocrites, leaving it doesn’t change that.  I know a church whose organist was arrested and half the church supported him and half wanted to abandon him.  The church chose to abandon him and eventually all the supporters left and the haters won.  That church’s attendance dropped and is currently in danger of closing because – hate begets hate.  If the church chose love and forgiviness, who knows where it would be today.

Today’s church does not know what oppression is because they are doing the oppressing.  If you banish the dragons, you banish the heroes and we’ve always been attracted to the heroes in our society.  Satan doesn’t have to fight the church because he has joined it.  When we shelter our children from adversity, we’ve failed as parents for it is adversity which trains and teaches children how to prepare and cope for what the real world may throw at them.  Someone once asked gay activist Harvey Milk what they could do to help the cause and Harvey told him to go out and tell someone.  There is always someone who wants to confiscate humanity and there are always stories to restore it but we need people to tell the story.  By banishing sinners the church is denying and forgetting its story and its calling.   Certainly every church will proclaim that it welcomes sinners but watch what happens if a registered sex offender or former murderer would like to join.  Ask Squeaky Fromme what church she is welcome in.

If the church lives out loud, we can trounce hatred and restore everyone’s lives.  Then we can truly celebrate who we are and truly see ourselves in a healthy, life-giving, complimentary relationship with creation around us. Forge meaning and build identity then, invite the world to share your discovery and joy.  As the Hollywood axiom goes, “If you build it they will come.”  Those who hear may even enter in for, they too have a story they’d like to share if they are brave enough and welcome to do it and then in the process, heal others too afraid to speak up.  The big question is though, does the church want to listen?

Church Growth Through Music?

I hope to discus this issue without reawakening the Inquisition but if I get you to think or maybe a little perturbed, I’ve done my job. That’s what troublemakers do, they get you to think and if it is a worthy thought process, it might inspire you to try to change something.  It is usually the troublemakers of the world who get things started, done or changed.  Where would any of us be today if it wasn’t for a troublemaker speaking their opinion, voicing a concern, sitting in the front of the bus or defying authority? Issues of sexuality, peace, gender and race equality have all been moved forward by troublemakers.  The world needs more troublemakers.  Jesus himself was a troublemaker and he was arrested and sentenced to death for his crime.  I find it funny that people don’t realize that by today’s standards he would be considered a convicted felon.  And don’t whine to me about him being innocent.  We don’t have innocent people locked up in our prisons?

So, on topic, there are many clergy and traditional liturgical churches who have or are deliberating the issue of adding a contemporary music group as a worship resource in an effort to attract young people to their declining populations. One must consider that upbeat, hip or contemporary music will not necessarily attract young people back to church and you wouldn’t want them there to be worshiping the music anyway.  Music worshipers can be deadly for a church.  Music worship is one of the many battlegrounds found within our churches.  While it is good to be fluent in the musical vernacular of our communities and try those of others, anyone in search of that type of music can easily find it on the radio, the internet or on TV.

In addition, much of the contemporary Christian music is more user friendly for soloists or highly skilled performers.  Those sweeping melodies, out of range high or low notes and tricky rhythms are often difficult for a congregation let alone an amateur soloist to sing.  Hearing it performed anemically is not much of an attraction, either.  If the church has to fear something, it should fear mediocrity which is often present in many of our churches.  Whether the music is “performed” well or not, just visit a church that has contemporary music and look at the young people.  Are they participating?  Do they appear to want to be there?  Music should be a symptom of a vibrant and active congregation.  Pastors who have failed, musicians trying to justify their jobs or those who worship music, may disagree.  People of all ages should go to church to worship, pray, wonder, seek, find, to learn how to walk the walk comprehensively instead of in seeking divided assemblies and being lured in by yet another golden idol.  If the people are not singing, maybe they don’t have a reason to sing. Give them something to sing about.  If a church is not the hub of our week, the space of our regrouping, a place where we have a transformative experience, a place where the Sabbath day is holy, then what is it?  A concert venue?  Music should not be the reason we go to church but it is important on the list of programs and activities which can help inspire a congregation to walk the walk.  As I said, it is good to be fluent in the musical vernacular of our communities, but as a symptom of our “with-unity.”

Another flaw with much of our contemporary music is that it is based upon poor theology.  There is a difference between the inspired words of Scripture and “me and Jesus” songs which are at best suitable for private devotional exercises.  I recently accompanied a small choir who sang a song with the text – only if you beleive will you receive the blessings of God.  I know quite a few atheists who live blessed lives.  Like the sun, God’s blessings shine upon everyone, not just believers.

When you go to a birthday party, you don’t go because there will be drums and guitars accompanying the song “Happy Birthday.”  You don’t go because there is going to be a choir or soloist singing “Happy Birthday.”  You simply don’t go to sing “Happy Birthday.”  You go because you admire and love the person celebrating the date of their birth and because of that admiration, you sing “Happy Birthday.”  The song accompanies the ritual action of blowing out the candles and making a wish and, is usually performed with full and active participation.  The participants are not concerned about being judged by others because everyone’s focus is on the person they are there to admire, not one another.  The music is not the reason why people go to these types of celebrations but it is an important part because they have something to sing about.  People shouldn’t be going to church because of the music or any other gimmick, they should go for another reason.

The fastest growing population of Christians are the disenfranchised.   People leave the church because it doesn’t work for them.  Re-inventing what doesn’t work won’t bring them back.  Maybe the church needs to get the people out of the pews (apostle = apo [away] + stellein [send]) to simply share the wonderful things God is doing in their lives and nothing more.  If people who are seeking something greater than themselves return with those from our churches who have gone out and shared their love, great.  If not, the world is still a better place for their going out.

Churches shouldn’t be focused on growth or the making of more money.  Churches need to stop worshiping their music but worship God whom those actions point to.  They only need to share the love of God through action, not tricks and lures of false gods and golden idols such as music, pizza, sewing clubs and the latest in multimedia technology.  Those are all great tools and we all want and may have them but in today’s technologically accessible and socially active society, we don’t need the church to fill those needs anymore.  In addition, if we want to serve the poor, there are organizations outside the church where we can do that and they are usually doing it much better than the church.  I know many people who volunteer and actively make a difference in their communities and they have chosen to opt out of organized worship life.  Lady Gaga has probably saved countless gay teen lives from suicide.  The church has probably lost many gay teen lives to suicide.  So, why church?

Christianity has survived 2,000 years and we don’t need to fix it now unless we have wandered from the path.  The church is answering questions that young people are not even asking.  Go back to comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, healing, feeding and clothing.  As the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” not our music.  I want to remind you that I previously said that music is a great tool and should be a symptom of a vibrant church which can also help inspire a congregation to walk the walk.  I personally harbor no musical prejudices.

For those churches who see this light, your challenge is to sleuth out the reasons people don’t see church as relevant and address those issues.  According to some biblical scholars, most people have only a fourth grade knowledge or understanding of religion and biblical history.  Our Sunday School programs tend to teach bible stories as fundamental isolated facts and truth while failing to point to the bigger picture of the canon.  It is hard to admit that some stories are just stories aimed at conveying a message especially if it is engrained in our DNA since childhood that every word is unadulterated truth.  Personally I am not a fan of atonement theology and see the task of the Christian church is to no longer rescue you from your sin but to help you grow beyond the barriers of your insecurity into a new understanding of what it means to be human.  I know a priest who admitted that to me once but he said he would never tell the congregation because he would lose his job.  Education is the key to solving most of our societal concerns and it could build a thriving church unless we get mired down in the stories.

For instance, many of our fairy tales are about witches, big bad wolves and vampires.  Those stories were not designed to teach kids that those entities necessarily exist, they were designed to teach kids to not go alone into the woods and to be wary of strangers, to stay on the path and to know that nice is different than good.  They are not fundamental stories.  Here are a few more reasons that people see the church as irrelevant:

The bible focuses on a history and culture that most people don’t know anything about so the readings are meaningless and boring to the average listener who knows nothing about first century Jewish culture and history.

The bible is male dominated.  There are no voices from women nor people of color.  It doesn’t address nor give voice to our current demographic.  Did God stop speaking 2,000 years ago or does he still speak through people today such as Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen or the Dali Lama? I beleive that the Unitarian church includes readings each Sunday from our contemporary mystics, prophets and assorted troublemakers.

Church demeans our humanity when it tells us we are terrible and sinful people from birth and that that process defiles our mothers. Instead of trying to make us fearful religious people, it should focus on making us the best people we can be.  God is love.  I don’t know any parent who comes home and then tells their children that they are wretched sinners nor do I know anyone who enters a room and announces the same.  When we go to church, one of the first things we do is ask God for mercy and forgiveness.  What did we do over the past six days?  Christians don’t need to be born again, they need to grow up.  In becoming human we enter the divine, we step beyond all limits beyond ourselves, and when we move beyond our sense of inadequacy and learn to give our lives away in love to others we experience life at a depth not previously known.   We all make mistakes but we don’t define ourselves by those mistakes.  We grow from them and move on.   The church doesn’t want that because it is in the forgiveness business and would go out of business if you started to grow up.

All denominations teach some degree of fundamentalism whether they realize it or not, or, they make no attempt to correct past errant beliefs.  We get our skewed theology and disbelief from bad childhood Sunday School programs, poor preaching and the greatest and most believed interpreter of the bible of all: Hollywood.  Most of what people think happened in the first century, for instance, is derived from movies.  For example, we think that when the curtain was torn in two, we envision what movie producers have taught us, that there was indeed an earthquake, rocks split, the sun disappeared and the walls of the temple cracked and people fell to the ground.  Did that happen literally as in the movies or was it really intended to be a deep and poignant poetic description?  Most people don’t even know what the “curtain” truly was but Hollywood “showed” us in the movie.  While I stood at the bedside of my mother the moment she died, when she took her last breath, I could describe it as a quake and eclipse too, and the curtains which divided my family were torn in two, but it wasn’t literal.  Oh Charlton Heston, you’ve done more damage to biblical scholarship than any devil ever could.

We can not nor will not twist our 21st century minds into first century culture and understanding of the world.  2,000 years ago, if someone fell to the ground and started shaking, they were thought to be possessed by demons.  Today we would say they were having a seizure and get them medical care.  Fundamentalists can consult a priest but I’m going to consult a doctor.  The church has a lot of damage to undo before it can reclaim credibility and it should not preach on first century beliefs.  As the Gershwin song states about Jonas living in the belly of the whale, “It ain’t necessarily so.” The people recognize this. It took the Roman Catholic Church over 300 years to admit that it was wrong for imprisoning Galileo about his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  How weak was their faith if they couldn’t handle a little speculation from a scientist that they had to arrest him?  Remember the advice given to the Sanhedrin by the high priest Gamaliel in the book of Acts when he was asked to solve the problem of this new Jesus movement.  He said if it’s of God, there is nothing you can do to stop it and if it is not God, you don’t need to oppose it because it will eventually die under it’s own weight.  A biblical scholar once opined that most of what is written in the bible didn’t actually happen and he later received 16 death threats and a bomb scare. I bet that none of those threats came from atheists.  Our faith is weak if we must protest too much.

The church tries to get us to see life through stained glass windows.  It teaches us that pain, suffering, death, hate, discrimination or persecution can be conquered and prayed away.  Many people only go to church when they are suffering or scared.  Pain and suffering are inevitable and can’t be conquered.  The church can however teach us that those things, with the help from one another, can be endured.  Henri Nouwen said “Blessed are those who suffer, not because suffering is good, but because they shall be comforted.”  Every condition of our lives, good or bad, wonderful or horrible, is merely the support system for the journey.  If I fall and break my leg, don’t pray for me, call 911.  Then together we can pray and rejoice for the gift of friendship, caring, sacrifice and the healing process. I know a Christian Scientist who fell and broke his hip.  He went to the hospital and had surgery.  Several weeks later he came back to church and praised God for his healing. I don’t know why Christian Scientists get a bad rap for believing that God heals them.

Religious institutions and denominations teach that theirs is the only one true religion or institution.  Many do not allow the cross pollination of Communion. A Hindu who rejects Christ hasn’t found it.  A Christian who rejects Buddha hasn’t found it. This is why more people are identifying with being “spiritual, not religious.”  They don’t know what they don’t know but they recognize tunnel vision when they see it.  I am a Christian because I was raised in the Christian tradition but if I were born to different parents I could easily have been a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist.  People travel the pathway to God that is available to them, usually by birth.  Is the pathway holy or is the goal to which every path is pointed to holy?  If one walks their pathway deeply and with integrity they will walk beyond boundaries of their human and church created pathways.  They will then escape the limits of religion and be able to sit down and talk with their Jewish, Buddhist and Muslim friends.  That is the essence of the Christian faith, where we can share in the treasures of the of the faith journeys of other religions.  That is important, a Christian is one who walks the Christ path into a deeper and fuller expression of their own humanity.  The opposite is that I am right, you are wrong and you won’t be right until I fix you.

Our society is more enlightened and knows more about issues such as the origin of the biblical canon, when the books were actually written, who actually wrote them, why they were written, the phenomenon of oral tradition, psychological warfare in scripture, scientific or logical explanations of supernatural events, etcetera. When a more enlightened person hears fundamentalist preaching they just walk away.  But, people need to realize that if they are not part of the church, they can’t fix it.  Not to act is to act.

The church has been on the wrong side of public opinion for centuries; where is the center of the universe, sun/earth relationship, Inquisition, Crusades, witches, homosexuality, women, equality of women, Manifest Destiny, the Magna Carta, slavery, married priests, gay marriage, and so many other issues.  The church doesn’t continue to believe or support many of those issues nor does it rehash them.  It doesn’t have to.  But, it doesn’t address issues of today.  If it does, it doesn’t do much more about them. A homily should inspire action, then the church should act.  Mostly people just go home until next Sunday and that is the fault of the church.  If the church does inspire people to action, it should provide the opportunity and tools for them to act. A church shouldn’t just tell people to visit those in prison, it should also tell them what time the bus leaves.

When the church cherry pics data and scripture to live by but then is judgmental, persecutes, abandons and hates, young people see, they hear, they listen – then they walk.  They may not know why but they sense something is wrong or hypocritical and that this hypocrisy doesn’t feed their souls.  And yes, churches can hate; are the penitent actually welcomed joyfully back into the community, reconciled both to God and their fellow Christians?  Ask a drug dealer, murderer or sex offender if they feel welcome even though they paid their debt and reconciled.  Churches now run background checks on its membership.  Note: Jesus would not pass.

I once had a drummer join my contemporary music group.  He told me privately that he just got out of prison and I simply congratulated and welcomed him.  He was phenomenal and added much to our sound and energy.  The choir loved him.  He played with us for about five weeks when my pastor asked me who he was and I accidentally blurted out that he just got out of prison.  The pastor said he had to have a meeting with this wonderful musician and after the meeting, without a word he never returned.

Our actions and inaction’s belie much of what is preached on any given Sunday.  It is interesting that the bible belt is screaming for the death penalty of Dylann Roof.  Does your church beleive in and demand the death penalty?  Not to act is to act.  Which church would you like to belong to, a blood thirsty vengeful one or one that forgives?  We don’t need to set Dylann free but we do need to forgive him, love him, visit him and support him if he is sentenced to live out the rest of his natural life in prison.  How powerful a witness Dylann could be if love were to transform him – as it did that other murderer, Saul/Paul, and Dylann then traveled to speak out against hate and prejudice.  Eh, let’s just kill him.  How quickly the church forgets that many of its saints and holy men were first murderers, rapists and thieves.

As children grow up and break laws, we lock them up in places where kindness is rare and considered weak.  Most inmates leave prison and re-enter society hating society for turning its back on them.  Wouldn’t it seem more reasonable to put law breakers in a place which cherishes kindness, reminds them of how important it is and affords them opportunities to develop and express it? Which church would you like to belong to? With or without religion, good people do good things and evil people do evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. Not to act, is to act.  Does your church act?  Is it a troublemaker?  Does it condone state murder?

In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person commits a crime, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work ceases, and every man, woman, and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things the person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is welcomed back into the tribe.

So if people don’t come to church because they find its teachings, actions and inaction to be hypocritical, outdated, ineffective, meaningless and poorly executed, do you honestly think guitars and drums are the answer?  Have your tried fog machines and laser lights yet?

Why Are the Institutional Churches Failing? Reason One: Vision, Fear and Apathy.

A favorite discussion topic of mine is addressing why churches across the country are failing or seeing diminished attendance with no sign of growth.  I have seven theories and I’d like to share my thoughts on the first.  So, keep in mind the old saying that the devil doesn’t need to beat the church, he needs only to join it.  St. Augustine once said of the church, “So many sheep without, so many wolves within.” 

Prayer is the least thing you can do for someone while still getting to grandstand like you are actually doing something.  That may sound harsh and irreverent but, if I fall and break my leg, don’t pray for me – call an ambulance.  Then plan to come over for a few weeks to help with cooking and cleaning, then we can pray together in thanksgiving and praise for the gift of friendship, healing and ministry.  After all, isn’t that what church is all about, taking care of their, uhm, own?

Religion is a great comfort – to a world torn apart by religion because we confuse the wrappings with the goods.  Let’s say Jane Doe walks out into a field one day and sits under a tree eating carrots.  For whatever cosmic reasons she becomes enlightened and when she returns home everybody can see that she’s got a light around her the size of Manhattan.  Within a week there would be thousands of us sitting under trees eating carrots.  Once a year on that day there would be carrot celebrations and rituals, rules and recipes.  That particular species of tree would become holy and we might even wear carrot pendants around our necks.  We’d wind up killing people on the other side of the world who aren’t interested in hearing about Jane.  Churches and pastors would spring up all over the place charging $200 per weekend to help us look and act more like Jane.  But Jane’s enlightenment may not have had anything to do with the tree or the carrot or what she was wearing or her personality.  Like the Buddha said, “Don’t follow in my footsteps, instead, seek what I sought.”  Jesus said “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”   Hafiz said simply, “Wherever God lays His glance life starts clapping and the myriad creatures grab their instruments and join the Song.”  We would go to the mall to purchase stuff to show off their Jane spirit. 

Some of the most hate-filled, unforgiving, uncompassionate and merciless people I have ever encountered have been good church people (watch for my future “Mabel” blog).  A lot of the aforementioned qualities fall insidiously neat under the banner of Christianity.  I haven’t been able to figure out why but I can only surmise that it parallels with what Shakespeare said, “Thou protesteth too much.”  Maybe it is that we hate most in others what we fear in ourselves.   Maybe we are afraid of  looking into the abyss and seeing what is staring back at us.  Maybe a vast number of church goers espouse that arrogance because they live beneath the mask of goodness.  The only way to deny what they fear within themselves is to stand on the sins, failures and faults of others.  Now, if your church is different, ask yourself if they would allow a murderer, drug dealer or sex offender to openly become a member of your congregation.  Nowhere else does the query “What would Jesus do?” hold so much irrelevance when you ponder allowing undesirable and sinful lepers to sit in the pew with your family.  All are welcome, except for those people. 

We discourage people from the church in order to keep the gene pool, as it were, clean and, protecting existing members is more important than fighting sin.  Many people who commit crimes and get arrested are good people who made mistakes, who got carried away with power and privilege or had a lapse in judgment.  Does that make them bad people?  Does that mean they can’t learn, change or grow?  Do they deserve second chances?  Do we even know who is sitting in the next pew?  Oscar Wilde, who was sent to prison for three years because he was gay said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Altemio Sanchez was a pillar of his community, trusted and professional.  He was a church lector and Eucharistic Minister.  He also raped and murdered over ten women during a twenty year period.   He got away with it because the police arrested and framed the wrong guy.  Case closed, bonuses for everyone.  So, Altemio hung low for a while.  Despite that, he was trusted, loved and respected every Sunday in his own community flying well below the radar of the other good people of his congregation until after a ten year hiatus he did it again and got caught.  It was a shock.  Nobody saw it coming.  “He was such a good man.”

Does a man change because you know more about him?  The answer is no but the new knowledge about someone can bring to the surface of our personalities some latent prejudice, hate of fear which is often stronger than faith and has little to do with the person.  It is easier to hate the gentle and child-like Frankenstein monster because you can label him than it is to face our own nascent monster within.  We humans do protest too much especially when we can point an accusatory finger at someone worse.  Remember, burning witches at the stake did nothing to resolve the witch problem, it just exposed more witches in our midst. 

I once had a man come up to me after Mass to inquire about joining our music ministry.  He said that he played the drums professionally and was looking for a church to belong.  He told me that he just got out of prison and was looking for a church that kisses the leper clean.  I told him that I would love a professional drummer and he could start with our variety show which was that weekend.  He joined me and he gave our music new life.  I never asked him about his past.  We were a church.  It was irrelevant.  All are welcome.  Cast the first stone, and all that. 

After a few weeks of playing, the priest came up to me and asked me who that new musician was and without thinking I said that he was a guy who just got out of prison and was looking to get his life back on track.  Fr. Leonard then approached him and told him that he likes to meet with everyone who is looking to join the parish and would like to set up an appointment with him.  The drummer eagerly acquiesced. 

The following Sunday, the drummer didn’t show up for Mass.  He didn’t show up for rehearsal or for Mass the following week either.  Since I didn’t have a phone number for him there was no way to make contact so I asked Fr. Leonard if he had that meeting or if he knew why the drummer didn’t come back.   Leonard just said that at their meeting, they both agreed that this parish was not a right fit for either one of them.  That was very strange because without knowing of his past, everyone made him feel welcome, loved, valued and respected and, he was eager to share his talent, faith, prayer life, witness and growth with us. I can only surmise that it was Leonard who didn’t make him feel welcome.

A few years later, Leonard told me about a time when he was a priest at another church.  There was a DWI accident where the intoxicated person was a state trooper.  He crashed head-on into a van carrying a family and there were serious injuries.   The trooper was unharmed and quickly whisked away from the scene  by his cop friends in collusion to sober him up.  There were no charges lodged against him, it was just an accident.  Leonard witnessed the accident, knew that the trooper was intoxicated and was livid at the scandalous injustice so he decided to contact the DA and demand justice or he was going to go to the press.  That same day, Leonard got a phone call from the bishop and was told that he had three hours to pack up as he was being moved to a new parish immediately.   Leonard the ever obedient company man could take a hint and never mentioned the case to anyone.  Shortly after the accident, one of the victims died from their injuries. 

A few months later the state trooper completed suicide.  Leonard said “Finally, justice is served.”  He  totally lost my long waning respect for him on that day.  Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia said that “People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status.  They don’t want to lose face.  They must be right at all costs.”  The few people that I have known who desired revenge or justice, seem to base their justification on some presumed idea that they were owed something.  Usually the “revenge” sought was somehow related to addressing a presumed injustice.  The priest in the above story rests on the assumption that his personal standards should be accepted as universal.  This viewpoint suggests that the individual has some secret access to the universal good.  Such a viewpoint will eventually be unsatisfactory because it doesn’t allow room for personal or spiritual growth.  He felt that the suicide was justice and thus acceptable to him and right for society.

One of the flaws in our present legal system is the emphasis on punishment instead of restorative justice which would address the needs of the victim as much as the action and correction of the violator.  Sending someone to prison only makes them hate society and when they get out they feel that society owes them so they look for ways to take – often gleefully living off the largess of the social service department and taxpayer.   Instead of becoming a productive member of society they become a drain on its resources and a leper because we won’t rent to them nor hire them nor let them into our good churches.  “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is just another way of arrogantly saying “We don’t forgive you.”

Rather than providing closure for the victims and survivors, revenge does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh.  I don’t think revenge is really sweet.  If it is, it’s an artificial sweetener.  It may feel good to get back at someone by sending them to prison for decades, but the feeling won’t last.  My priest friend continues this day as a bitter, hateful, spiteful, vengeful person who surrounds himself with others with as much venom and blackness of heart as he possesses.  They spend a considerable amount of time at their men’s prayer group meetings talking about other people and since a church’s most effective information source is its congregation, be it good news or gossip, they spread the word.  That word reaps what it sows.  Those with eyes to see, see and now his church is near death.

Leonard does however give great homilies and inspires many people.  Sometimes when someone knows the truth and they don’t live it, they protest too much, in this case at the ambo in front of an adoring audience, with great fervor.  He is very successful at grooming them into thinking he is holy.  I don’t want to fall into the trap of Godwin’s Law so I’ll just say “Heil!” as an example of this phenomenon.

The people who choose to seek revenge perhaps do so because they think it will make them feel better and they don’t care or haven’t thought about how it could actually make things worse.  Gavin Staulters operated a motor vehicle in an intoxicated condition and crossed onto the shoulder, striking and killing 14 year old Kari Liedel.  Gavin was sentenced five years in prison and Kari’s mother said that she wished the sentence could have been longer.  The community and DA were outraged, too.  Their anger, hate and thirst for revenge is going to haunt them the rest of their lives because they didn’t get what they think they wanted and Gavin supposedly got off easy.  In this case, nobody won.  If they first practiced restorative justice, forgiveness, compassion and healing mercy, everyone could win.  The tragic and avoidable death of Kari was because of stupidity, immaturity and weakness, not malice.  Revenge comes at a price. Instead of helping you move on with your life, it can leave you dwelling on the situation and remain unhappy because the revenge or justice wasn’t sweet.  Meanwhile the offender goes on often unaware of the hurt the other person is festering with.  How ironic that our justice system just perpetuates this victimization of the victims.  Kari’s birth into new life could have been the impetus of healing enlightenment for many.

Will more laws and more harsh punishment solve the DWI problem or bring Kari back?  There will always be drunk drivers and they will always be with us as long as there are people, alcohol and cars.  If I fall off a ladder and break my leg, you wouldn’t hate the ladder but you may compassionately heal me.  Too bad, before we carried out the death penalty on that convicted felon, Jesus, who most likely, he and his friends would not be welcome in many of our churches today, that we didn’t learn his lessons about restorative justice.   I believe it was Gandhi who was asked,
“You are always quoting Jesus.  Why don’t you become a Christian?”
Gandhi replied,
“When I meet a Christian who acts like Christ, I will become one.”

Historically, there are two schools of thought on revenge. The Bible, in Exodus 21:23, instructs us to “Give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Punish the offender.  But more than 2,000 years later, Martin Luther King Jr., responded, “The old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.” Abraham Lincoln famously turned his back on some crimes because he knew that punishment would not benefit anyone.  Hate begets hate.  Buddha called it “Karma.”  Jesus said “Do unto others.”  The world says “What goes around comes around.”  The laws of physics are true even in our congregations:  Every action has an opposite and equal reaction.  Hate begets hate, absolutely.

I offered a church the opportunity to get involved in a prison ministry where I offer support, comfort and assistance out of my own pocket to the families of those incarcerated.  The families are the collateral damage of our justice system and they are often too ashamed to even go back to church (they are a goldmine of new members and wounded healers).  The church responded by saying that that ministry was not for them nor where they wanted to go at this time.  They then organized great and lucrative fish dinners for the Fridays of Lent.  Yay, praise Jesus (He likes fish and money).

So my first reason people don’t look to join churches:  Many churches lack vision for compassion and love;  Many churches fear sinners; and many churches have apathy for people who are not good, like them. When looking for a church to join because you wish to be closer to God and make a difference in the world, would you join a church who first screens out the people whom you are looking to save? 

Disgraced SC Governor Mark Sanford said  “Don’t judge any one person by their best day, don’t judge them by their worst day.  Look at the totality, the whole of their life, and make judgments accordingly.”  The highly effective cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer is unfortunately best known for his greatest failure.  If Jesus hung out with and went where the people spit and swear, lie and cheat, kill, rape and do filthy things, then who was it that came up with the bright idea to make the church some kind of anesthetized clinical environment of only “good” people, that is removed from the rigors of everyday life?

In a world gone mad with mistrust and alienation, the church like never before must present faith as a dynamic and relevant force for change and enlightenment.  It must be as yeast and unsettle the mass around it making the comfortable uncomfortable.  As a weird Biblical aside, I don’t think Christ advocated revenge or praying for things from a selfish position or to alienate undesirable people.  I think churches that operate that way are doomed because church seekers with their hearts in the right place can see the hypocrisy and futility of the institution.  Before praying, maybe we should get up and do something such as kissing lepers clean, then praise God for the gift of love, for one another and for healing action – even for the lepers.  Some good people would vehemently protest – “That is well and good but, not in my church!”  And that, is a church nobody wants to be part of.