A couple of weekends ago at a breakfast meeting before the consecration of Robert Wright as the new Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, someone asked Katherine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, about the discouraging words in the recently released Pew study on religious affiliation in the United States. (In case you haven't heard, that study points out that "nones," those that have no religious affiliation, are growing much faster than any religious group in the United States.)
Bishop Jefferts Schori pointed out that 1 out of 3 Episcopal dioceses in the United States is growing. Given what we hear about the state of the Episcopal Church and other so- called mainline churches, that was surprising and good news. Why are these dioceses growing? Her answer: "The church is growing where it provides attractive opportunities for people to wrestle with the big spiritual questions."
That comment reminded me of an article in the Tennessean a few months back. In Nashville, the article said, contrary to national trends, many mainline or so-called liberal churches have been showing "surprising strength and have grown in membership over the past decade." What's the secret? Well, Nashville's growing, for one thing, but the thriving churches "also have found success by finding ways to balance between doing good works in the world and meeting the spiritual needs of congregation members."
The Rev. Mary Louise McCullough, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, said that in the past, "liberal churches focused on social justice but neglected spirituality." She says she used to wonder what distinguished those churches from the United Way.
McCullough went on to say that successful mainline churches have remembered to take care of people's spiritual needs. "That includes meaningful worship services with good music and lots of Bible study." She likes the passage from John's gospel where Jesus tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."
A couple of decades ago Christopher Schwartz's research showed that when people come to church they are looking for two things: 1) to be warmly and genuinely welcomed into community and 2) to have an experience of the presence of God.
When people talk about getting back to the basics, I think that may be what they are talking about. People come to our assemblies looking for God, but we church folk have been focusing on survival strategies instead -- odd behavior for a community that follows Jesus who told us not to try to save our lives. Many of our folk have convinced ourselves against all evidence that the next sure-fire program or latest trend in worship technology will save us.
What if instead we looked for ways in which our communities could invite our neighbors to join us in "wrestling with the big spiritual questions"? What if, instead of showing off our programming skills or the production values of our Sunday gathering, we invited our neighbors to join us in seeking an encounter with the One who is Wholly Mystery and
We Lutherans have a rich heritage of liturgy that points to that Mystery and of theology which points to that Love. I believe it is what the world needs and is looking for.