When I read an article by Seth Godin on the woes of book publishers recently, I couldn't help but think about the similarities between the situation he describes and the challenges facing our congregations.
His summary statement of the problem is striking:
the challenge the big book publishers are facing is that a perfect industry is being replaced by one filled with chaos and opportunity.
What does he mean by "perfect"? Simply that book publishers - and the stores that depended on them - enjoyed a monopoly on the means of producing and selling books. As he writes,
Limited shelf space plus limited competitors plus well-understood cost of creation and production meant that stability reigned. The industry was polished and understood.
For three hundred years or so, book publishing had nothing in common with technology businesses where the underlying economics of the business were questioned regularly.
Substitute "church" for "book publishers," make just a few contextual adjustments, and you're almost there. We, too, operated within a near "perfect" industry in that as long as a significant percentage of people went to church we enjoyed something of a monopoly. While we might have competed with ourselves (Methodist vs. Lutheran vs. Presbyterian, etc.), our culture placed a high value on church attendance - think of the "blue laws" that governed most states. This ensured that we had very little competition on Sunday mornings. For that reason, for about three hundred years or so (at least in this country), we in church leadership also had little reason to question our practices.
But that day is over. We need to rethink how we "do church" in relation to a changed cultural context where fewer and fewer people go to church just because their parents did. Instead, people want church participation to meansomething. They want, in other words, to get something out of it.
There's little doubt that this represents a generational sea change. If I were to ask my parents whether "church worked for them," they would likely not understand the question. They didn't expect church to work. Or, more accurately, they went to church out of a sense of faithfulness. That's just what you did on Sunday morning. Sure, sometimes it was more uplifting and inspiring than others, but that wasn't the point. They didn't go with the primary expectation that church would "meet their needs," but rather attended out of a mixture of faith, habit, and duty.
Not so with an emerging generation of people who have more opportunities for, and demands on, how they spend their time - including Sunday mornings - than our parents and grandparents could have imagined.
Further, the cultural support of church attendance has diminished significantly. Blue laws have all but vanished, and work, sporting events, recreational activities and more all now vie for our Sunday mornings. In this environment, today's potential church attendees weigh their experience at worship against all the other possible ways to spend their Sunday morning and make a more calculated decision.
That troubles some of us. When we hear people explain that they've stopped going to church because they "don't get anything out of it," we label them narcissistic and say they've missed the sacrificial nature of Christian faith.
But like it or not, the days when people go to church in large numbers just because "they're supposed to" are over. And, to be honest, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. My heart is strangely warmed by the idea that people may someday go to church because they actually want to.
But to help that happen, we need to get over our grief for the way things were and start leaning into - and learning about - the way they really are. And that means we need to start asking questions. What do those in and out of our congregations need from a faith community? What kinds of support do they need to cultivate their relationship with God? What kinds of resources help them connect the faith they profess on Sunday with the daily lives they lead Monday through Saturday? How can we help them pass on their faith to their children? What opportunities for service will stretch them spiritually? And so on.
This means things may - actually, strike that, things will - look different. But it may also lead to a renewed sense of the nature and purpose of our congregations. After all, there are a lot fewer book publishers and bookstores than there were a decade ago. At the same time, more people are reading - print books, ebooks, blogs, webzines, etc. -than ever before. The question isn't whether people will keep reading, but who will help them do it.
The same is true, I think, of congregations. This present generation reports a greater interest in mystery, the divine, and spirituality than has any generation in a century. So the question isn't whether people will seek God, but ratherwho will help them find God
We are, I think, experiencing a revolution in so many areas of our shared life, including the way we think about church. And as Godin writes,
Revolutions enable the impossible at the same time they destroy the perfect. There's entirely too much handwringing about how the perfect book industry is no more. That's true. It's no longer perfect. What's happening now, though, is the impossible.
While plenty of folks in the church will deny or resist the call to change, clamoring that we do things "they way we always have," I want advocate and urge that we embrace the impossible. I don't know, but it just seems like what the followers of a resurrected Lord should be ready to do.
Taken with permission from David Lose's blog, "...In the Meantime."