When I was a pastor in downtown Denver many years ago, a well-meaning parishioner would suggest with some regularity that we revise our congregational mission statement. Now, there is nothing I enjoy more than spending months wordsmithing a statement that no one will be able to recite a day after its adoption. But I need not have worried. Almost as soon as that suggestion was made, other church members would say, “Why don’t we just unlock the doors every morning and see what we find.” Just unlock the doors and pay attention is my favorite mission statement of all time.
In our downtown setting, that meant paying attention to the community of unhoused men who were staying in our basement as they worked their way to a stable life. It meant stewarding the weekday program held in our church school area that provided supervised child visitation for non-custodial parents who had been court-ordered to visit their children only under those circumstances. And it meant listening with care to every person who came to our doors each day, saying “well, you’re a church, I thought that you may be able to help.…”
Because of the social dislocation faith communities have experienced in the last several decades, churches – or followers of Jesus – may not be the first place that people turn to with their cries, yearnings, and searches for help. But they are still crying, yearning, and searching. For any community of faith trying to revise its mission statement right now, I would pass forward the same advice I received years ago: Look around and pay attention.
If we pay attention, we will find these signs and cultural sighs nearly everywhere. Just from the last six weeks, here are some places to turn your attention:
- A recent Barna survey found that, of the one-third of U.S. adults and teens who describe themselves as “spiritually open non-Christians,” 34% completely agree with the statement: “The church does not answer my questions.”
- An article last month on “new rules of success in a post-career world” noted that ever more Americans are searching for work with meaning, putting personal fulfillment over traditional priorities like income and status. As the author put it, increasingly “success is meaning, not means” and “success is story, not status.”
- In his insightful blog “Graphs About Religion,” Ryan Burge recently posted a piece titled “Religion Has Become a Luxury Good.” At the end of this deep and multilayered article, Burge writes:
Religion, at its best, is a place where people from a variety of economic, social, racial, and political backgrounds can find common ground around a shared faith. It’s place to build bridges to folks who are different than you. Unfortunately, it looks like American religion is not at its best. Instead, it’s become a hospital for the healthy. An echo chamber for folks who did everything “right,” which means that is seeming less and less inviting to those who did life another way. Do I think that houses of worship have done this on purpose? Generally speaking, no. But they also haven’t actively refuted this narrative.
- In late May The New York Times posted an article, “Why Universities Should Be More Like Monasteries,” which describes two classes at Penn that have long waiting lists. In one class, “Living Deliberately,” students study a different monastic tradition each week. Of the other course, “Existential Despair,” the instructor says:
The course is not about hope, overcoming things, heroic stories.… I’m not concerned with their 20-year-old self. I’m worried about them at my age, dealing with breast cancer, their dad dying, their child being an addict, a career that never worked out — so when they’re dealing with the bigger things in life, they know they’re not alone.
- The Wall Street Journal published an article on the last Saturday of June: “Magic Mushrooms. LSD. Ketamine. The Drugs That Power Silicon Valley.” It is a discussion of how entrepreneurs are turning to drugs in hope of expanding minds and enhancing lives. Toward the end of the article is a description of retreats these leaders attend, focused on psychedelics: “The retreats are popular because we’re in a time when people are looking for ways to feel like their lives matter.”
- Also in the last few weeks, there was an article in Christian Century about “Deconstructed, reimagined faith,” where the author Peter Choi describes shifts…
from triumphalism to lament,
from morality to dignity,
from certainty to mystery,
from superiority to mutuality,
from rhetoric to embodiment.
I wonder how each of our congregations may be experiencing these shifts or trying to understand them and respond. Not every shift fits every setting and not all the cries and yearning of culture are consistent. But conversations in church surely need to shift as well.
When congregations – literally or figuratively – unlock their doors today they do so onto a world filled with people trying to find:
a group that will take their questions seriously,
a story that can make meaning for their life,
a place to help them build bridges among those different than themselves,
a place to experience mystery and build capacity for the ups and downs of life,
a way to engage so they feel that their life matters.
A well-honed tradition in churches is to schedule next year based on past years. (We always do the congregational retreat on the third weekend of September…. Should we do Youth Sunday the week after Easter again?…. The choir always does a special program the week before Christmas….) Reuse and recycle may be an approach to environmental stewardship, but this is decidedly not the time to simply re-purpose conventional ministry programs. No programming in church matters right now unless it directly addresses deep questions of meaning, getting out of our self-made echo-chambers, experiencing the mystery of God in Jesus Christ, building capacity to live through the ups and downs of life, and helping people engage with life and work in ways that matter.
Not all this needs to be tackled at the same time and right away, of course. But this is such an exciting time to be a church, to be following Jesus, and to have been given the opportunity to help address the world’s needs with the hope of the Gospel! In your congregation, how are you unlocking the doors and looking around?