Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Radical Hospitality

You may not know this about me, but I'm part of a church family.

Like all families, you spend most of the time with your immediate clan, and then occasionally have extended family outings. You hang out, you fight, you sing together, you cry together, you have your routines, you have business to do to make sure you can stay together, etc etc.

I'm actually a non-religious person in their midst, though.
I think they know that about me.
They still love me anyway.
I love them, too.

The reason we started attending a church was pretty superficial; my boyfriend and I had gotten engaged and were pretty sure that we'd have to get married in a church to keep everyone happy. Plus, I guess it seemed like the thing you were supposed to do. We didn't really care. Whatever. Etc.

We knew a
UCC church was probably our best place to start church-shopping, based on one we visited with some friends in college once. We wandered into St. Peter's and never wandered out.

In the 9 years we've been part of the UCC, it's very clear that 1) they want to continue growing as a denomination, 2) the mainstream mission of the UCC is justice and equality work, also saying, "all are welcome here," but 3) the diversity of the individual congregations (rural/urban, large/small, old/young, traditional/progressive) makes marketing difficult, I think.

The UCC was formed when four separate denominations came together. Some congregations still maintain more, uh, traditional/conservative actions and services. Others are outwardly progressive. Most I've encountered with my extended church family in Missouri are somewhere in the middle; more progressive missions with traditional-looking worship services.

I've also spent a lot of time in the past 9 years submerged in church life, listening to people talk about how they want to grow their congregations. We need the young people! We need the young families! We need more butts in the pews! We need to keep this building!

What's interesting, though, is that we want these things without having to change anything about our Sunday mornings. We like our worship just fine; we like the people we sit next to just fine; we like what we do with the building just fine. So, anything different that needs to happen just has to happen when we aren't there, OK? OK. Now get us more young people!

So, I'm writing to you, small, kinda-desperate, possibly-older congregations. I don't have the answers, but I do have a lot of thoughts, and luckily I have this free blog website to share those thoughts!

[Before we get too far, I just want to say that as a non-religious person, I don't have a lot of strong feelings about whether "church" remains an institution. I do understand that church members have very deeply-held attachments to their churches (the history, the building, the traditions, etc), though. My attachment, I find, is my attachment to the people, my family. No matter what we are doing, no matter where we are. I write to offer outsider perspective as someone not actually interested in "church." I might not be your target audience, I know, ha.]

1. Consider why church is a hard pill to swallow.
So, remember a looong time ago when church was pretty much the only all-family/multi-family social experience? Remember when communities didn't change too much because everyone just stayed together and married other people and brought up families in that one community? Church is definitely an activity-hub in communities like that.

Now, with so many other things going on in life, and the fact that it's pretty easy to relocate your life for work, school, better weather, relationships, whatever, the church isn't the hub of activity for a community that it used to be.

Now factor in science and technology and discussions and discourse and questioning and free-thinking and peer pressure and all the things that make the concept of church (even religion) seem...irrelevant. Especially the churches that really seem to profit off the guilt-control (You are sinners! You were born sinners! Give us money/say these words/believe these things and you will be saved!) and offer only anti-gay/anti-divorce/anti-abortion messages--They can be really stomach-turning to non-churched folks. So many people have been hurt by church. And there's a chance your clan is part of that pain.

2. Consider what people might actually be looking for.
What I think can happen in the midst of being in school, relocating often (or seeing your friends relocate often) is that we do lose a sense of community. We do need a safe, comfortable place to go to see familiar faces and find activities that we enjoy doing and build another kind of family with. As you seek new people, consider who might be new in town, or places that would have more transient participants -- schools, bars, whatever. Your approach may need to be invitations to the non-worship activities. Another thing we see in our world now is compassionate people making a difference through philanthropy and volunteerism and other charitable acts. Worship experiences take away from the little time we have to just be helping people. Some people do appreciate that re-charge and inspiration. Just consider that the most profound amazing worship service is not the main thing a potential visitor is looking for.

3. Consider a web presence.
Your church needs a website. It doesn't even have to be updated that often, but you need a web presence so potential visitors can find you. Your phone number, worship times and location are the LEAST you need to have on a homepage. You'll want to create other static content about your church beliefs, mission, whatever you think is important to communicate to people who have never met you before. If you are a radically welcoming church, that is Page One material to communicate.

Creating marketing materials really can give your community a chance to figure out your identity. "Well, who ARE we? What do we seek in our members and our community? What are we even doing here?!"

4. Consider actually being hospitable.
Church is one of the many places where we tend to surround ourselves with people who are just like us. It's safe and comfortable and affirming of how we are living our lives. I've been the stranger in church situations where I wasn't greeted at the door, or greeted by ANYONE, where church members wouldn't budge from their usual pew or invite new people to sit with them. On the flip-side, hospitality is also not pressuring people to join and to be there every Sunday. Let visitors find their connection to your community however they need it. Smiles and invitations, OK? No pressure. You can have the most radically-welcoming church on paper, but you have to walk the walk, too. That takes work, sometimes. I get it.

5. Consider what you mean by "the young people."
St. Peter's is definitely a small, older congregation. But what we ALSO are is a group of adults who have the time and energy and resources to hang out together and work on projects and have social gatherings and do fundraising and enjoy the work we do together. But we talk about how the only way to ensure the longevity of our church is by adding "young people" to the mix. That really negates the strong community ties and work of the older adults. We live to be 90+ years old now! We have a lot of life to give. When we don't have kids, or when our kids grow up and move away, we're just as ready to be a vibrant, working member of a community as a "young person." We probably also have the money, too. Maybe. Just throwing it out there. 

So, don't alienate the hard-working, devoted members you already have in your community. Rather, see what your community already IS and don't be afraid to own that identity. People come to church looking for "same." I know it's hard to get the new-family, young-people demographic going if you don't have any of those right now. Our church is Open and Affirming (a welcoming community for LGBT individuals and families), but we don't have many of those members in our congregation yet. I understand that we like to spend our church time with people who are like us, or fill a role that is missing (sometimes a younger person will come to church and bond with the mother-like members rather than the others of the same age). Anyway, maybe being a hub of activities and worship for adults is supposed to be "our thing!" Still exploring.

6. Consider all the things that can look like "church."
A reality that a lot of churches need to face now is that carving out time on a Sunday morning to go to an irrelevant, outdated meeting where people say prayers and read out of an old book just might not be how they experience the spirit/divine. Especially if their friends aren't there (note "same" message above).

If your mission is outreach and justice, you can share those messages just as easily on your website, through blogs and social media, to try to engage people in other ways.

We all look for inspiration to be called to action somehow, someway. Don't shut out possibilities that don't look like your traditional worship. Extend your worship to the web if you can; create other opportunities for people to be called to action with your community. Extend your community to events that support the same mission you have. Extend, extend, extend. Get out there.

7. Consider that you aren't actually failing at what you are doing.
On another note, don't feel failure when people move away, OK? Losing church members can sometimes reflect a success on your part; that people have used their time with you to move to the next chapter of their lives. The trick is making sure the rest of the world knows you are there to help them wherever they are in their journey.

-C McG

PS. I want everyone to always feel like they are part of a community. You are welcome to any of my communities, of course! If you are looking for a Sunday gathering that is non-religious, try KC Oasis (their website).


  1. My parents go to one of those Johnson County megachurches where they have 10 services a day and thousands of members. I can only imagine that's having a big impact on smaller churches; kinda like Walmart killing mom and pop businesses.

    1. Right?! There's a lot of appeal when it looks like you are joining the thing that everyone else is doing. Churches like that tend to also have lots of programming and activities and "same" people hanging around. Big productions for their services, too. It's hard to match that spectacle/capital improvements/marketing when your church is barely scraping by to keep the doors open.

      I tend to surround myself with people who are better at the time and talents way of giving, rather than dropping big bucks, which is great! but can't keep a building open on its own.