A few weeks ago, I attended a bible study involving the area’s Episcopal churches. A priest was leading a discussion on the gospel of Mark, and asked about the implications for the Church today. I commented, “When was the last time the Church asked people what they were looking for in a church or what they hope to get out of church? It seems like an obvious answer: fellowship, become closer to God… But when was the last time the Church asked?” The priest piped up, “Why do you think the church doesn’t ask those questions?” Another participant replied, “Maybe because they don’t want to hear the answer.” Much of the group nodded thoughtfully. Another chimed in, “Or maybe what people want out of church, is not what church is for. We aren’t going to pass out coupons or give gold stars for showing up.” I found this perception of what people want from church interesting. I can’t think of many that want their church attendance to be tracked, even if incentives or rewards were involved. But this conversation got me thinking about the plethora of notions around what church is for and what people want to get out of church. And perhaps more importantly how does the Church and the faithful deal with such discrepancies.
At the church where this meeting took place they keep business cards by the door. On the front of the cards was the name of the church and the service times. The back of the card read, “If you are interested in spiritual things, join us.” This invitation is not limited to Episcopalians or Christians. This invitation would include people of other religions or people that don’t identify with any religion. This wide variety of people would have some rather conflicting ideas on what church is for. After the last comment I had to wonder, was this congregation and the Episcopal Church truly welcoming of these people and the varied perspectives that come with them? Or is this invitation simply an attempt to get more bodies in the pews on Sunday? I know churches everywhere, of all denominations, are struggling to fill pews and many are attempting to attract more people. But if the invitation is only a gimmick, and the church is not truly open to people ‘interested in spiritual things’, and cannot provide what newcomers are looking for, newcomers will quickly move on. There is a good deal of variety in American churches to fulfill expectations or preferences and meet a variety of needs, allowing the faithful to find their niche. However the decrease in church attendance across denominations suggests that fewer and fewer churches are able to provide what the faithful are seeking.
This brings us back to the questions the Church is afraid to ask: What is church for? What do people want out of church? But more importantly, are congregations willing to address and provide these things? If not, congregations can not be surprised or upset when the pews remain empty or when newcomers do not remain. I respect the choice to preserve tradition, but people must accept the consequences of that choice in changing times. They may also want to consider what dynamic perspectives and conversations they will lose out on when their focus remains inward on tradition. With change, some old things inevitably must go, but something new is always gained.