The ship has run aground — let’s find a new way

Karie Charlton offers three words of advice to churches charting a new path.  

Photo by Nick Jio on Unsplash

When I talk to my friends who don’t attend church, it’s easy to understand where their lack of enthusiasm for organized religion comes from. One of them told me that church was a country club for the middle class. They can’t afford the real country club, but they want a community with people who are just like them. Another friend thinks the church is anti-everything they care about like women’s reproductive health, the queer community, public schools, etc. A relative told me he’s read the Bible but can’t find a church that actually does what Jesus teaches.

I’m tired of the metaphor that it takes a long time to steer the ship in another direction. So, church: we’ve run aground, and we can’t sail anymore. It’s time to disembark and find a new way. We can’t continue to do what we’ve always done. Here are three things I offer for us to keep in mind as we move forward.

Be authentic. Be (and love) your most authentic self as a church and as individuals within the church community. Pretending to be what you think someone is looking for will only end in heartbreak for everyone. And worse, if you’re holding on to an ideal of what it means to be a church, people will notice that no one is free to be themselves.

We don’t have to pretend that the church is a pristine palace. Maybe we should aim for something more solid and earthy – a stable, perhaps. Sometimes, you need a place where work can be done, even if it gets a little messy. After all, manure can make the flowers grow.

Mr. Roger’s taught all of us that we are lovable just as we are and that we should love others. His show continues to impact generations of people, and it wasn’t perfect. Sometimes he made mistakes (like the time he couldn’t set up a tent). We don’t need to be perfect. Be the person Mr. Rogers loved — Be the person Jesus loves.

We don’t need to be perfect.

Work together. Stop comparing yourself to other congregations but work together in loving partnership. It’s ok if you don’t have the same programs or attendance numbers or endowments as other churches. The comparison between congregations only makes people feel grief and shame.

If you like something someone else is doing, join them. Make new friends. Combine efforts and resources to do what is best for the whole community. Your efforts are about providing for others, not about counting heads to see who has the most successful program. And furthermore, don’t be afraid to work ecumenically or in multifaith settings. We have so much in common and so much to offer one another in love. In my experience in Pittsburgh, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Unitarian Universalists all care about providing for the needs of others, I’m sure it’s true in other cities too. I have prayed, protested, and provided food to the hungry with my multifaith neighbors.

If you like something someone else is doing, join them.

Find another metric. The goal of ministry is not to put butts in pews. The Matthew 25 initative is something a lot of us are talking about, but I wonder how many of us are hoping that by welcoming the stranger we will have more than 50 people in worship. That’s really not the point. Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. I believe Jesus taught us to help vulnerable and marginalized people by ending systemic poverty and structural racism and providing hope for new life. Somehow, we have twisted that into putting on breakfast and egg hunts, so we get more kids to show up on Easter Sunday. We should be asking ourselves: Are we feeding the hungry or are we having brunch with the privileged?

If the church isn’t changing the community for the better, why does it matter how many people sit inside it on Sunday morning?

If only our metric is worship attendance, I think we are doing ourselves a disservice. We need to ask questions about how our congregation interacts with the people outside of it. We should be wondering about the poverty level in our community and how we can alleviate it by donating our time and efforts and calling our local representatives. Maybe our metric should measure the community health or literacy levels. Or maybe our metric should be how many of our neighbors are in prison because of fines they can’t pay. If the church isn’t changing the community for the better, why does it matter how many people sit inside it on Sunday morning?

You are loveable and capable of loving others. Work together. Ask big questions. Be the church.