Declining Churches

Church Buildings and Plastic Couch Covers

Growing up I had a friend whose family had a formal living room. I’m not sure why they had a formal living room, since they got just about as much use out of it as the crawl space under the stairs, which always seemed prone to flooding. But having a formal living room was a big deal … I guess in case the President or K.C. and the Sunshine Band stopped by to visit.

And while the President and Mr. Sunshine Band would have been welcome to sit on the plastic couch cover, ordinary human beings were not. It was a place set aside for some ultra special event that everybody believed might one day occur, and for which no one wanted to be unprepared. And so it languished in all its Teak-paneled and shag-carpeted glory, its uncomfortable looking orange couch and lacquered end tables gathering dust.

Not that it looked like a great place, either to play or relax, but I always harbored a secret desire to sneak into that living room and start moving the macraméed owl wall hangings and the vases filled with big glass balls around. I knew such hijinks in the forbidden room would be stroke-inducing to the people in charge, but dang, it felt like it needed to be done.

I suspect the need to have a perfectly preserved room (even if it looked like a touching/creepy homage to the Partridge Family) stemmed from the desire of working class folks to have nice things. Many of the folks in that generation had come of age in the aftermath of the Depression, World War II, and then the cultural pre-pubescence of the 1950s. Having nice things for certain social classes in this generation was still a relatively new phenomenon. Like domestic police, the impulse to “preserve and protect” seemed a natural response to the rapidly shifting political and cultural forces reshaping the American landscape.

“Get out of the living room!” and “You better not spill anything on the good furniture!” became the new suburban rallying cries. Some rooms were for everyday, and some rooms were for … well, never.

I preferred the family rooms of my youth to the living rooms—the former to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored, the latter to be encased in harvest gold amber, and to be later excavated by post-apocalyptic anthropologists looking to explain the domestic habits of late twentieth-century bourgeoisie.

Unfortunately, not only were the aesthetics of this time ecclesiastically enshrined in church buildings [Seriously? Burnt orange upholstery on the pews?], but so were the attitudes about church buildings as special places to be protected against all human encroachment, preserved for some special purpose at a distant point on the horizon of time.

Look, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be places in a church that are set apart as holy space. The sanctuary probably shouldn’t double as the gym for the Day Care during the week. The baptistry probably shouldn’t house hidden jacuzzi nozzles for staff parties. We probably shouldn’t eat our Cap’n Crunch out of the offering plates. Fine.

Let me be clear, I’m thinking less about the use of particular rooms in the church than about the church building itself. In many people’s minds the church building has become the plastic-wrapped living room that should be safeguarded against the invasion of sticky-fingered people bent on messing it up.

But what if the church building was recast as a family room, to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored?

What if we turned loose of the idea that churches are antiques to be collected, rather than tools to be used to accomplish some purpose?

What if we took a chance and let the community use our space as a gift to those with whom we live and work, instead of defaulting to suspicion of motives or fear of what might happen?

Declining mainline denominations have these huge legacy buildings, sucking up more and more of our resources. What if we said, “We’re going to think about this building as a launching pad, rather than a saddle?”

We’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to get messed up. Somebody’s inevitably going to spill something on the plastic couch covers; somebody’s going to move the owl hangings and leave beer can rings on the lacquered end table.

So, fix it … or learn to love beer can rings.

People visit museums; they don’t live in them.

Vision and Branding

By Rev. Mindi

I had a really awesome talk with a local advertising agent for our local news blog just this morning (Monday as I write this) and it has me thinking that we in the church still are so, so far behind in so many ways.

We are so good in the church about saying “We are not a business.”  But then we go and act like a business with a board that runs like a corporation and congregational leaders that act like CEO’s.   We draw up budgets and we crunch the numbers. We put resources into staff positions and maintenance and cut outreach and education and mission. We get smaller and smaller and so we cut all “non-essential” budget items like continuing education and health insurance, cut salaries and positions down to half-time or less, and finally, we are left with nothing to cut and we close. We are a failed corporation.

That’s where our problem is: we say we are not a business, but then we act like big business.  Rather, we have a lot to learn from small businesses (and yes, not every business is the same, not every small business is the same).  Many new start-up small businesses are based on a passion, a dream, that is driving the business: a vision. Many people start up their own business because they love doing what they are doing and dream about doing it, whether it be a restaurant or a bakery or a used book store, a consulting firm or jewelry shop, just to name a few of the small businesses in our town on one street. But here’s the thing: they are local, and they begin with a dream, a vision.

They also have to compete with the big box stores or big firms or big chain restaurants, but don’t worry too much about the competition from them because they are local, they offer personal service, they don’t mind you taking time and they will take time for you when it comes to making decisions on purchases or transactions of services.  Of course, the church is not a place where we exchange money for services, but the personal service, the attention to detail, and the time given for decision making are all good aspects we can take into the church, on top of the notion of dreams and passion: a vision that moves people forward.

Now here is where branding comes into play. I know of a church whose slogan on its sign is “Something For Everyone.”  Except it doesn’t really offer something for everyone and if it did offer something for everyone, I would expect it to be much, much larger than it is. Even my current church is using a slogan that is a bit too broad and too open for interpretation.  We do this all the time in smaller churches that want to grow: we don’t want to limit our possible outreach, we don’t want to say no to anyone who comes in, so we try to say “yes” to everyone. The truth is we can’t be all things to all people.

So that’s where my talk with the advertising agent comes in. She (an active member of another church) told me something I’ve known for a while: you have to brand yourself.  That’s the marketing term: branding.  What is it that makes you stand out, what makes you unique?

Translation for the church: What is your vision? How do you make your vision known?

I have been leading my church in a vision process for the past six months, and I led my previous congregation in a similar process.  First, we looked back at our past. We had a day where we shared memories by the decades (I started with the 1950’s but people had memories further back than that). We wrote them down on big sheets of paper, decade by decade. What was it that brought you to church way back when? What was fun? What was exciting? What made you want to keep coming back? We wrote it all down and then put it up the next Sunday for everyone to look at, and fill in a memory if they weren’t there or had remembered something later.  We talked about our memories. More specifically, we talked about the feelings we had, and we talked about the movement of the Spirit in the life of the church. The conversation turned from “what we used to do” or “how we used to do it” to “what was it that helped us feel alive, engaged with God, in relationship with Jesus, moved by the Spirit,” etc. 

The next month we talked about what was important to us, as individuals and as a church (this part is core to the vision process—what is it that we value?)  The following month, we talked about what we were ready to let go of—past assumptions, long announcements, etc. This is a time for venting the negative energy, the things that we do but we don’t know why we do them.  The next gathering we focused on the three core parts of the vision process: Values, Words, Actions. We’d already done the Values part, now we focused on what it was that we said about ourselves and what it was that we did. Do our words, actions and values line up with who we say we are, or is there is a disconnect? 

We’re nearing the end of this part of the process: we are going to be forming a vision statement.  A vision statement is not the be-all and end-all of the process, but it helps point the way. This vision statement will say something about who we are, who we want to be, and how we are being. This statement will go with our church logo, will go on our website, will be the branding that we use. 

For churches, I think (or would hope) that it is less about competition and more about saying who we are to those that don’t know us, and at the same time, reminding us of who we are and where we are going.  Habakkuk 2:2 says “Write the vision… make it plain so that a runner may read it.”  In other words, keep it short, make it easy to know, make it something that everyone can memorize and recite to those who want to know about who you are.

Lastly, so you don’t fall into the trap of “Something for Everyone,” be a little more specific. If you are Open and Affirming or Welcoming and Affirming, say it. Put a rainbow flag up, or a handicap accessible sign, or an Autism puzzle piece on your logo, or something else that symbolizes you are welcoming, open and affirming to a specific population. That doesn’t mean you’re not open and affirming of typically developing children, straight people, or people who don’t use a wheelchair! But it lets people know that your congregation thinks about these things and is concerned about the inclusion of others.  Most of us don’t want to limit ourselves so we either say nothing, or have a very, very long non-discrimination or inclusion statement.  The statements are great—and should be on your website and your welcoming information. But your vision statement, your branding, your logo, your identity statement—however you want to put it—should be shorter, something everyone can memorize and recite, and needs to contain something that makes people say “If they welcome these people, they probably welcome others as well.”  

So as I said, my current church is still in the process. We haven’t gotten there yet. But I’m very hopeful about the process and where we are going, and through this process, we are recognizing our need to be more specific in our welcome and inclusion of others. We are learning that we need to share our dreams, our passion, through the process of vision, remembering the spirit that once filled us before, and we are finding that spirit again. We are also learning more about who we are as individuals, and how we welcome one another is integral to our church.  The spirit is still there, and in the words of Habakkuk, there is still a vision for the appointed time.

Hope comes in small packages

By Rev. Mindi

Sorry for that terribly cliche title. But bear with me.

I’m in that weird post-election pre-Advent what-do-I-write-about phase. You know, the calm before the storm for pastors, because the next month will be ca-razy!

As a pastor, I’m constantly challenged by outside the church of what I need to preach about, because outside seems to be where so many are.  Outside the church is the real world of political struggle, conflict over debt, taxes and support to the poor; outside is where the difficult questions about ethnicity and religion are happening over in Gaza and Israel; outside is where the “nones” are and we need to reach them and we need to abandon this old way of doing church so we can get out there and be with the “real” people.  Outside is where the homeless and poor are. Outside, outside, outside. The church is stuck inside and is cold and boring and dying.

*Yet this week I heard the story of a 70-something woman who is finding new life after almost dying. After being unable to walk she is starting to learn a new musical instrument. I know another who is reclaiming a passion for art that they had in their teens but lost in their adult years.  Another is struggling with a child who has AIDS, another has a grandson they have never seen.  Another’s brother is in rehab and another’s child is pregnant and not seventeen.  I know grandparents raising children and grandparents going back to school for another degree.  I know of elderly volunteers at elementary schools and young environmental activists reorganizing the church’s recycling. 

For all the criticisms of the church that we might have, for all the “new” and emergent churches that are making a difference, our old churches can still make a difference, too, and may be doing it under our noses.  There are days I throw my hands up in the air in ministry and think, “These people will never change, they’ll never grow out of their habits and they never want to do something new.”  And then I peer under the surface and find they are reaching out in new ways, but also living into hope in new ways.  They are miracles in and of themselves.  And they love their church.  And sometimes they just don’t know what to do, and they know the way they have always done things isn’t the best way, but they are trying their darndest.

So sometimes I think those of us, and I am including myself, who get all critical and huffy about the church being stuck in the past, need to take a moment to pause before the craziness of the world and be thankful for the problems we have, for the people we are with, because these are the real people in our lives.  We may see the conflict in Israel and Gaza and wonder how in the world we can make a difference.  I have friends involved in petitions and protests and peace conferences and interfaith dialogues—they are doing good work.  But the grandparents who keep an eye on the neighborhood kids in our small city streets—they are doing the work of peacemaking as well. 

For those of us in our small churches, let us be thankful for what we have, let us work with what we have, and let us see those miracles, those stories of living hope, and do what we can to tackle the small problems in our lives.  Who knows?  Maybe we can reach out to some of those “nones” by our everyday ministry and stories of hope. 

This Sunday I’ll be dusting off the Advent wreath and getting ready to participate in the traditions that this church has held for a long time, some of which the meaning has been lost.  But there is hope here, hope in the living stories of the people who still gather here, and the meaning of these traditions becomes apparent when I remember that: this is a community of faith, and the ritual of tradition at times stirs in them hope that even when they are gone, things will continue on, and that they won’t be forgotten.

We have plenty of poor people, people on Social Security and food stamps within our congregations.  We have plenty of reasons to speak out for social change and to act for greater change in the world around us.  And yes, we do need to step out of our comfort zones and we need to go out into the world.  But that doesn’t mean we are dead on the inside.  No, for those who have grown up in the church, put their faith in their community, there is life here, too.  And we need to honor and recognize and celebrate that life. 

So as I prepare for Advent as a pastor, to preach a familiar message once again, I am reminded that even in the familiar, I can find challenges and struggles, despair and conflict—and hope, hope, hope.  Hope that is alive in the lives of people going through chemo, recovering after a fall, searching for a new job, dreaming of college.  Hope of those with a family member in rehab, hope for those struggling with health care.  If there is one thing that Advent does, year after year, candle after candle, it is remind us that Hope is always, always possible, in the darkest of times. And maybe there is no greater place to find hope lived out than in the faithful in a small, aging church, as they light the candles year after year.

*obviously I have changed these stories, the details and ages because these are real people I know, but you may know these stories in your lives.