July 2015

The Growing Number of Unchurched

How do we plug the dike?

I write about this topic a lot. I have no idea if it makes a difference, but I don’t see things getting better in the Church until somebody recognizes a few things. So I’ll keep jousting.


Everybody knows churches struggle today.


Most of the dialog about this phenomenon takes place in clergy circles. They look for answers. Some think they have them. There is little proof that the few successful church growers will sustain their success beyond their personal involvement.


You see there are two types of Christians—those who occupy the tiny altar side of the chancel rail and those on the deep and wide pew side.


On the chancel side: Clergy talk to clergy. Clergy write for a clergy audience.


Things are not much different from the other side of the chancel rail. Laity talk to laity. Not many laity write about the issues though! It’s dangerous!


The problems of today’s Church cannot be addressed without this changing and yet despite all the calls for change and transformation this dichotomy remains unchallenged.


There will not be more people in churches until people feel more a part of what’s going on.




I’ll refer to a blog post I read this week. The Church’s Hidden Back Door, by Thom Schultz.


This post references data from a study by Josh Packard, Ph.D., Exodus of the Religious Dones.


The topic is the unchurched—more specifically those who were once part of the happy Christian family.


I am one of the unchurched, although 2×2 is an active faith community. We just don’t fit in where we used to fit in for 120 years. We know why we are unchurched. We were locked out in 2006. Our property was deemed more valuable that our people. The synod that locked us out is still trying to shut down our ministry even though they declared us officially closed years ago. That thorn in their side.


Our experience validates all the reasons people feel disenfranchised from Church as listed by Schultz.


Schultz cites four.


“I feel judged.”

Not imaginary in our case. We were judged—by people who don’t know us and have no authority to do the judging.  The number of clergy gurus who confidently publish their judgments attest to this approach having widespread acceptance.

“I don’t want to be lectured.”

In the limited dialog we had with our regional body leaders, we weren’t exactly lectured. We were talked down to. But then most of the dialog went on behind our backs. This leads us to the Schultz’s next point.

“Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.”

The Bible forbids what happened to us on so many levels. But the learned clergy can’t see it for preaching.


And last . . .

“Your God is irrelevant to my life.”

I don’t think any of our 82 locked out members feel that God is irrelevant. We are a pretty faithful bunch. But the actions that were perpetrated upon us in the name of God are unrecognizable to us under any faith system.


Our most problematic finding. No one cared that we were there in the first place—and we are most definitely not welcome to come back.

Laity talk to laity.

But as I wrote, laity talk to laity. I’m hearing that our experiences, although among the most drastic and dramatic among many similar cases, are not alone.


Smart lay people go to church and aren’t part of a dialog about important issues. They are expected to listen to one person— usually the same person week after week—talk about issues that they deal with every day. Have a problem with what they say? You might be invited to express your views in private. Then again, you might not. Those in the pulpit don’t expect to be challenged.


Judgment is everywhere in the church. It’s in doctrine. It’s in how we welcome outsiders. It’s in who we ask to volunteer and serve.


Decades and centuries of preaching a gospel of inclusion and equality and laity are still treated as subjects.


There are biblical verses that cover these things. They are easily overlooked. Addressing them might create dialog!


And so, clergy seek answers among clergy.


Laity seek answers for a while. And then head for the door.


There are better things to do.

Learn from Business: Emphasize Retention

The key takeaway from Schultz’s post is something that businesses know and address daily.


Finding new members is far more difficult and costly than keeping old members.


Yet many a pastor or bishop heaves a sigh of relief when the those who might challenge them, on any level, disappear.


In this regard, the Church shoots itself in both feet. You see new members look to see how old members are treated. They are smart. History repeats.


My advice: Clergy, start talking to us, for the sake of the Church, please. And listen.


You’ve had decades to find answers within the chancel.


How’s that working for you?

What “Ownership” Means in the Church

Mession vs Mission

Katy Perry gets involved in a church dispute. Wow!


Maybe if we dyed our hair purple and sang better, we’d get national attention! The case is similar to our experience.


Who owns church land?


The concept of ownership in the Church is not often addressed until there is conflict.


Our case has shown the worst of this poorly defined hierarchical mess. The ideals of love, forgiveness and reconciliation flew out the door early on. Greed, pride, and power moved in. Gossip reigned. It was easy for others to look the other way. It was all so nasty.


But now there is a higher profile case involving a popular entertainer.


Nuns in California want to sell their land to a restaurateur for $15.5 million. The archdiocese claimed property rights. They want to sell the land to Katy Perry for $14.5 million.


Who owns the land?


Lutheran founding articles, constitutions and polity are clear. Congregations own their property. This was the crux of our feud with our equivalent of an archdiocese, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod.


Catholic polity is less clear. The bishop controls all the land, maybe. Clearly the nuns thought they owned their land until they wanted to sell it. Oh, and the Vatican can weigh in at any time.


The nuns’ legal representatives accused the archbishop of acting “as if he were above the rules and immune from the obligations of civil law.”


The court decision in our case will not help the nuns. There it was decided: The Church IS immune from the obligations of civil law. Our courts ruled they have no jurisdiction in intrachurch disputes. If the law were applied our congregation’s position had merit, they ruled. But the law does not apply.


Result: The Church can ignore its own rules. They would have a hard time getting away with what they are doing with anyone but their own members. The state of things should have every congregation questioning their relationship with their denominations. The lust for land is insatiable. Sooner or later, these decisions will affect everyone.


Small congregations are the most vulnerable. It isn’t that they can’t make it on their own or that their work has no value. Their failure enriches synod. Success won’t matter. The relationship is broken from the start. The prospect of land becoming available gives synods incentive to provide poor leadership options—caretaker pastors and interminable interims who report to the bishop. They are playing a waiting game. Congregations believe there is no hope. They aren’t imagining trusted leaders are looking for their own enrichment.


Congregations with members who can read their constitutions and determine that the actions of their leaders defy the authority given to them are walking the Jericho Road. They can expect to be robbed and beaten and left for dead. They can expect the priests and Levites to speed up as they pass by.


The behavior cited in the nuns’ case is all too familiar—refusals to meet, publicly bashing the decisions made by the sisters as if they are fools, moving ahead as if they do not exist. In short, arrogance.


At stake in the California feud is the future of the aging nuns. At stake in our case was the future of our entire faith community. Somehow these issues get buried.


If I had not been sued personally in our case (not to give the archbishop any ideas) I never would have started reading church constitutions.


But I was sued, so I started looking to see when and how the polity taught in confirmation class had strayed. The answer—bit by bit. A tweak to a bylaw here, another tweak there.


Here is what I learned.


Predecessor bodies of our denomination forbade synods from owning property.


The reason is now obvious.


Synods exist to serve congregations. Property ownership distracts from mission in their case. Land ownership for congregations means they have a presence and say in their community. Land ownership is best left to congregations.


Ownership changes mindset. That’s why synods should not be in the real estate business. It’s tough, it’s expensive, and it requires skills not taught in seminary. Property management becomes mission. It also is addictive. You have a little; you crave more.


While congregations struggle to support synods, synods look for sizable cash infusions to support their real estate enterprise. They need legal advice, property management advise, caretakers. Synod staff and budget will soon be out of hand. You’ll need a development office for fund-raising—competing with your supporting congregations’ offering plates. Since the constitutions don’t allow synods to take property, they have to start conniving. Congregations are not required to leave property to the synod if they close—unless they are mission churches. So the strategy will be to find a way to get congregations to accept mission status. Bribery is a good short-term investment. The congregation won’t realize that accepting a few thousand dollars, a gift that can be revoked at any time, lost them their property rights forever. If congregations don’t agree, the decision can be forced by using Involuntary Synodical Administration—a questionable contrivance that is a thief’s workaround. They’ll have to justify it somehow. They will recruit former pastors to support their case, violating the congregation’s trust—now and forever. Soon synods take land rights for granted and members will forget it was ever any other way. Fear guarantees it!


What a mess!


Mession not mission!


Maybe we need to return to the wisdom of earlier leaders. Maybe we should heed the advice of the Bible. Maybe synods and archdioceses should get out of the real estate business.


Property ownership by regional bodies is a clear temptation to abandon mission.


Congregations, don’t expect the courts to help you!

Revisiting Church Membership

Vine and branchesChurch Membership: What Does It Mean?

I just read a blog post that reviewed the church affiliations of the Republican presidential candidates. It is no surprise that faith is important to all of them.


Let’s see. We have:

  • A Hindu who converted to Catholicism.
  • A Baptist PK (watch out for those PKs!).
  • A  confessed Christmas/Easter Presbyterian.
  • A Presbyterian converted to Catholicism.
  • A Catholic.
  • A “quiet” Catholic.
  • An evangelical.
  • An evangelical Catholic.
  • A Southern Baptist.
  • A Southern Baptist pastor turned politician.
  • A Seventh Day Adventist.
  • A Catholic turned Mormon turned evangelical.
  • A disenfranchised Episcopalian.
  • An Episcopalian turned Presbyterian.
  • And another Baptist—at least his father was.

The list reveals the times. People change and the denominations no longer define their memberships. Adjectives are added to explain or excuse deviations from denominational stereotypes or departures from widely known doctrinal positions.


Church membership was once a sign that we were the embodiment of the vine and branches metaphor. The vine is still solid. The branches are getting a bit tangled.


Some denominations are more rigid about members and beliefs. Most are growing more flexible, criss-crossing where once they grew straight.


There were certain rules.

1. One denomination per person.

2. One congregation per person.

There was no real policing of these rules. The keepers of the “letters” were a trusted lot.


But the rules don’t always reflect the strength of a congregation accurately. Small churches often have as many “friends” working with them in mission as they do members. Any size church can have a majority of lapsed members still on the books! Hence a congregation with 1000 members might expect 150 on Sunday morning. Another congregation with 25 members might have 30 attending.


The rules belong to a simpler time—a less mobile time—a less inter-connected time. There was, after all, a time when the village had just one or two churches. The choices weren’t so complicated.


At the congregational level, the qualifications in our denomination require little commitment—one offering of record and one participation in communion per year. If a controversial vote is coming up, a lapsed member need only come to the service before the vote, take communion and deposit a check in the offering plate and their vote counts with all the others. I’ve seen voters rallied this way, so it’s not unheard of.


Keeping the communion record book was once the province of the church secretary. I wonder if anyone does this any more.


Only when church politics become contentious does anyone bother to qualify members. People who tithe, people who attend and put something in the plate regularly, have equal standing with the Easter/Christmas Christians.


Mixed marriages (aren’t they all?) call for compromise—the first test of the marriage commitment. Would one switch for the other? Would the couple find a middle ground denomination or go non-denominational.

What does church membership mean today?

Both giving and attendance are way, way down even among those who claim membership. This is likely to continue. Tithing is measured on first fruits. We all know that the government claims first fruits at three or four times a tithe and with steep penalties for noncompliance. This hurts charitable giving all around.


As for attendance, isn’t it odd that when people worked longer days, they made time for church on their only day off? Shorter weeks, shorter hours result in people whining about the need to sleep in.


The excuses are symptoms of lifestyle and value changes.


Our interconnected world values old-fashioned connectedness less. This applies not only to individuals but to denominations. All the ecumenical talk of the last few decades has resulted in little more than hierarchical maneuverings.


I am in an interesting position to ponder church membership. Our congregation was announced closed. Our members were cut off from the fellowship of believers. The rules don’t really allow for this, but the Church is notoriously poor at policing its own.


Our membership, our voting rights, our lifelong contributions and loyalty mean nothing. Our connectedness with others in the denomination mean the same—nothing.


What happened to 82 members set adrift? None that I know of joined a congregation of our denomination. A few went outside the denomination. Most remained unchurched. Among 160 congregations within our regional denomination, there were none who cared enough to speak up, to raise questions about the sense of mission, the effectiveness of church teaching, and the quality of leadership.


Membership must not be that important.


At sea, in the crossword puzzle sense, we discovered that denominations don’t mean much any more. Denominations limit dialogue, stifle the voice of the individual, and harden conscience.


Membership is cumbersome. The benefits of denominations uniting for more effective service are beginning to disappear.


A new sense of connectedness

All is not lost. We found new connections.


Here is what we learned. Each of these might become its own post!

  • Community is larger and wider than we thought.
  • Barriers of geography, language and culture are crumbling.
  • Church membership need not be exclusive.
  • There is less need for membership rules when no property is involved.
  • There is more opportunity to connect outside denominations than inside.
  • Government, community, and religion can partner.
  • Good people are willing and often eager to help without membership.
  • Doctrine is rarely discussed when people are busy working together.
  • Leaders are just as confused about what is happening in the Church as members are.

Looking for Innovation in the Church

That the modern Church is troubled is hardly news. Statistics have been plummeting for years.


Where will the Church find the answers it so desperately seeks?


We are looking for transformation, innovation. Yet the religious and clergy-written blogs I read could have been published 20 years ago. There are few new ideas. They use the same language—a bit harsher, perhaps. They offer the same advice—a bit more desperately, perhaps.


Often, the efforts of laity are dismissed, discouraged, or actively put down in the online clergy dialogs. You’d think we are the enemy.


It’s an oddity. The entire structure of Church relies on the strength of the laity, but successes are usually attributed to clergy. Strong lay leaders with obvious skills are a threat.


I, as the key contributor to 2x2virtualchurch, have felt this prejudice. My writings are sometimes labeled “antiestablishment.”


I am very much for the establishment of religion. However,  I recognize that the traditional methods of establishing and maintaining religion simply will not work as our society moves in directions the world has never known—especially if the Church does not move along with it.


With Lutheran roots, I feel within my rights to address Church topics. Luther taught equality in that regard. I believe that small churches are pivotal to the future of Christianity.  Some mainline denominations seem to view them as expendable. Their property and endowments makes this an attractive option. One little problem. You have to get rid of the people who own the property. Messy business. The root of all evil. . .


Jesus started small. He could have gone straight to the religious establishment of the day. He chose to concentrate on the laity—from the get go. Plan A!


We know modern challenges are daunting. Church leaders juggle difficult conditions.


Laity can help. But not if they are trampled over and locked out.


More books are bound to be published on the topic of Church Transformation. They are not likely to make much difference unless they begin to respect the skills and experience of the laity as leaders—not dutiful followers.


There is logic in this. Precedent, too!


Clergy are schooled in the traditions of their denominations. Frankly, they are vested in the system—theologically, traditionally,  professionally, and economically. Innovation is risky. Safer to keep doing the things that bring in the paychecks and keep people content if no less concerned.


Laity, on the other hand, have an entirely different view—many different views, in fact. Active laity are more interested in problem-solving. Who sits at the right hand of the bishop means little to us. We fund the church. We’re on the giving side of the economic equation.


As for precedent. Look to history. One of the biggest movements that shaped the Church—as our older members remember it—was conceived and executed by laity.


Study the history of the Sunday School.

The Sunday School is largely responsible for the strength of the Christian Church in America—even more so than the churches themselves.


The original concept, dating back to the mid to late 1700s in England, is attributed to a journalist, Robert Raikes of the Gloucester Journal. Today, he might have his own religious blog!


Raikes saw a need. Education and literacy belonged to the gentry. Raikes used the concept of Sunday School to teach children in the slums to read. Their lives revolved around their work. Sunday was the only day off. His innovation resulted in revamping the English school system. Raikes found support among the clergy of his day. Was he motivated by the pocketbook? Literacy is good for the newspaper business. But the passion that went into his ideas speaks otherwise. He centered his project around the Bible, not the newspaper.


His ideas were transplanted in American soil where clergy opposed the movement. They considered it a violation of the Sabbath. But perhaps they were feeling a little green. They were being asked to share the Sunday spotlight.


In 1817 in Medway, Massachusetts, when the minister and deacons were opposing the women’s idea of starting a Sunday school, one male leader complained, “These young folk are taking too much upon themselves.” Others said, “These women will be in the pulpit next.”


Sounds familiar!


Nevertheless, the Sunday School movement spread across the United States with the help of housewives, doctors, educators, industrialists, even an architect who designed the typical Sunday School Assembly area with classrooms surrounding a central gathering hall. .


Sunday Schools were lay organizations. Clergy had little or nothing to do with them.


Sunday Schools often operate separately from their sponsoring church. They take up their own offerings and have their own board of directors, usually entirely lay led. Under lay control, they take on social aspects as young people form sports leagues and older members plan picnics and festivals. These early networking techniques benefited the Church. Without the Sunday School movement, churches would likely have struggled going into the 20th century.


2×2 Foundation and our blog are part of this lay tradition. We offer our ideas on the state of the Church and are willing to experiment and innovate.


There is a big difference between the 19th century and the 21st century.


In the 1800s the movers and shakers of society were involved in church from an early age and as they established themselves in their careers. Their families were likely to have come to America for religious reasons. Their colleges and universities were likely to have strong religious roots.


Today’s younger generations are largely finding other places to serve. All indications are that they are no less spiritual. Church just isn’t making sense to them. They are no longer mostly slum children craving education and a way out of misery. They are the best-educated generation in history and many have been blessed with commonplace comfort of the middle class, which would have seemed like luxury to most people in pre-World War II America.


Congregations that want to survive will find ways to connect to today’s younger generations now, before it is too late. And let’s be clear. By younger generations, I mean all of those under 50. That’s a huge population! Most church-goers today are over 50!


Denominations that want to survive will stop viewing lay talent as competition. They will stop seeing disrespect in every new proposal.


Christ empowered the laity. He sent us out two by two (2×2).


Laity can make a difference. Give us a chance.


A Touching Story of Faith Among the Rules

The Church’s Rosa Parks (one of many)

I read lots of blogs about church life. Lately, I’ve responded to several written by church leaders who try to label or categorize congregations by assigning not-so-kind labels as if that might be helpful. Other church leaders chat in forums about their feelings of betrayal. There are few details. Other interpretations are never presented.


Although many of the writers are learned church people and no doubt well-intended, there seems to be a common denominator. They don’t understand laity. Sometimes they don’t seem to like us much less love us. There is a sense of entitlement. Laity are to be followers. Any sign that followers will not follow, for whatever reason, is a betrayal.


This is a root of many church problems and conflict. Perhaps we should ask questions. Why do lay people choose the role of follower in the first place? Why do lay members become disgruntled? How do we express discontent when clergy control all forums?


I wrestle with these issues personally, having been effectively excommunicated from our family’s multi-generational affiliation with the Lutheran Church. The first step when our congregation dared to challenge a leadership decision, following the rules of the church, was to make sure we had no voice—anywhere.


Churches don’t quite understand the web yet.


I am surprised and deeply touched by this post in the National Catholic Reporter. It shared the lay point of view!


It reveals with compassion and humility that decisions made by clergy 50 years ago might have been tragically wrong. A loyal lay person, who felt church rules were not in her family’s best interest, was pointing the way. She kept her decisions quiet. She had no desire to cause trouble. She was no revolt leader. Her decision was personal. She sat still in the pew, the Church’s Rosa Parks. Labelled as unworthy, she remained loyal.


She kept her hurt private. Had she been public about her views, she would have drawn attention. She wasn’t intent on reform. She was a mother. She just wanted what was best for her and her family and to do what felt right.


Read it. It might bring tears to your eyes. It might help you see the role of church leadership through the tears.


Pioneer Mom Chooses Love Over Church