A few weeks ago I was in Colorado for school. While there I had an opportunity to meet and get to know people from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, and beyond. We shared a week of learning and growing. We laughed together, cried together, broke bread together, and drank together. There were lots of emotions and even more discussion. Yet I couldn’t help getting queasy every time I was asked what I do for a living. On the third night together, several people asked me what I did. I revealed to them that I was a minister in the United Methodist Church. Most of them were shocked. The comment I got the most was, “You don’t seem like a minister.” What they were really saying is, “You don’t seem like the mold that we imagine a minister to be.” I was okay with that. I have never been one to fit into molds anyway.
After we spent more and more time together, I made a staggering discovery. Out of the 100 people at school that week, maybe 10 of them attend any type of church with any type of regularity. These were people from across the age spectrum, male and female, and many different races. God, church, and Christ were not even remotely on their radar. I asked someone if they had churches were they lived. They talked about all the churches in their area. They said they have progressive churches, fundamentalist churches, nondenominational churches, high churches, low churches, charismatic churches, old churches, and new churches. You could find many different types of churches where they lived, but they didn’t go to any of them. If this wasn’t a left/right issue, what does this mean?
As the week was winding down, I finally had an epiphany. This means just that. The church has no real meaning anymore. It is not important. It is not vital. It is not life-giving. It is not meaningful. There is no real reason to go to church if church is devoid of any meaning. Think about it this way. People come to church and we so often give people cheap platitudes. (Think: I’m Ok, Your Ok or Repent and Be Saved or What Would Jesus Do?) None of these things bring any real meaning to a person’s life. They definitely don’t offer any real reason for God, Christ, or the church.
This is not about how open, inclusive, or progressive your church is. This is not about how fundamentalist, orthodox, or traditionalist your church is. This is about how much your church conveys meaning to a culture that is desperately seeking meaning in everything else. You can be as traditionalist as they come, and yet your church will fade away if you don’t connect people to a greater meaning. You can be as progressive as they come, and yet your church will fade away if you don’t connect people to a greater meaning.
So how can a church change? Simple. The same way a person can change. I did three things intentionaly that helped people connect to me and connect to the church.
- I listened. 90% of the week I remained completely silent and listened. Not passive listening, but active listening. I didn’t challenge or confront. I didn’t get upset or mad. I listened to understand. I don’t blog a whole lot anymore because of what the blogosphere has become. A lot of hot air and not much is ever said. Sometimes we all become like that. Its easy to become like that in our political world today. So why not try listening instead of speaking. Hear the deeper desire in their hearts.
- I lived authentically. People don’t want a caricature. They want to see a person and a church that is willing to live authentically. Flaws and all. We aren’t perfect. Church won’t be perfect. I shared my own shortcomings and flaws. I let people see the real me. The church has to be willing to open itself up to its imperfections. We have to lose the perfection of the image we project. The church is full of broken people seeking to be made whole through Jesus. That is the image people want to see.
- I built relationships. I am in 100% agreement with Eugene Peterson. A megachurch isn’t a church. It is a Sunday morning performance center. We are the church. The church is a people! It is a community engaging in intentional life together. They want these relationships to be meaningful. I laughed with people, cried with people, ate with people, and hung out with people. We talked about life and meaning. We talked about truth and goodness and joy. We talked about pain and suffering. Wesley did this through small accountability groups. (Class Meetings) The church would do well by reclaiming some of these practices as part of its life together. We are really good at connecting church insiders, but sometimes we fall short of connecting with outsiders.
The good news is people want meaning in their lives. They want to know that their life means something. People don’t want to be alone. We are social animals. We want someone to hear us when we speak. We want people to be real with us. We want someone to connect us to a deeper truth. We want relationships. For the Next Methodism to thrive in a post-christendom America it will need to find ways to restore meaning to people’s lives.