Monday, February 14, 2011
THOSE KIND OF PEOPLE
Now, to be fair, these were not mean folks. They had lived in a community whose economy had been dominated by the boom and bust cycle of the military, then, most recently, the Kuwaiti conflict. At one point in time, the city had been a ghost town as nearly all the resources of the local post were deployed to the desert. Businesses and churches suffered much during that period (although not in comparison to the suffering of those soldiers and their families). They knew that because of the nature of this mobile community, it is hard to count on people whose time here may be more closely measured in months than years. One year may be boom with many Lutherans coming into town and the next year may be bust when they all leave with only a few to replace them. Anyone who has lived in a military town or where business has a high turnover rate knows this.
The folks here were not intending to be unwelcoming but did not want me to think that because one year was boom, it would be that way the next year. They were trying to give me some perspective. And, to be fair, I have learned some perspective. When I arrived here there were more than 8 Lutheran chaplains on post and there have been 1 or less in the last five years. I have witnessed years in which 1 of every four people in church on Sunday morning turned over due to military and industry moves. I have personally invested much in preparing people for lay leadership positions in our congregation only to see them move before they could even begin their elected service to the parish. Every year our Financial Secretary has trouble knowing what to do with the offering envelope statements for people whose address has been lost and they only moved 6-8 months ago.
In the end we worked to do both -- to function as a congregation without planning on the basis of the boom years and to keep from being handicapped by the bust years of military and industrial moves. We did this by welcoming all people (the few whose tenure here has been measured in months, the more whose time here may be measured in years, and the few who have made their permanent home here -- at least as permanent as can be when heaven is our home). We still have our ups and downs but we have stopped addressing them as "those kind of people" and we have accepted them for however long they will be here. In many cases this means receiving people in the earliest stages of their spiritual development. We have had a number of adult baptisms and a ton of adult confirmations. In many cases we have bid them tearful good bye at the very point in which their faith seemed ready to blossom into full bloom.
Now to reward your patience for reading so far... For a long time I thought of this circumstance as unique to military or industrial communities where mobility was endemic to the nature of that town. Now, after more than 18 years here, I am finding that this is becoming more and more the rule in urban, suburban, and even some rural areas. Churches find themselves with revolving doors (and not due to conflict or church shopping but due to the rapid turnover of people due to jobs, family situations, and retirement). This does not appear to be a declining trend but an increasing phenomenon in American culture and society.
We have people of all age groups coming and going all the time. This will require from the congregation and the Pastor a different approach. While I am not happy about it, membership in terms of transfer and acceptance and a name on a list has become less important than the people present on Sunday morning. Very few of our mobile people (those who may be here 3 years or less) actually transfer their membership. The majority have a church home of record (ours is that for many folks) but have a worshiping presence and connection to a parish nearer where they live. Now this does NOT diminish what we do for catechesis but it does mean we are not so quick to put the paperwork into motion when new folks come our way.
It also means that it is hard to know where people are at once they leave our area. I have sent letters to their new address after they have moved only to find out that they had one or two more addresses in the 3-6 months since they left us. Email may be more important to locate folks than snail mail addresses. More often than not military and industrial email addresses remain the same no matter where the person is physically located. Cell phone numbers remain the same no matter where people actually reside. Half of our new people have a cell phone number with an area code different than the region in which they live. Our newest and most mobile folks are searching for a bit of permanence and g-mail, yahoo, or hotmail and the cellular provider offer them the most reasonable options for a permanent address and phone number.
It means that our people come to us from so many backgrounds -- even within Lutheranism -- that it is often hard to know where to start for adult and youth catechesis. They have often had little solid experience with Sunday school or Bible study and you cannot count on the Scriptures being well known to them. So this means basics have to be offered for those pursuing youth confirmation and for the adults who come with a ton of church homes in their past. It also means that the differences so important to long time Lutherans are less well known or appreciated by those new to our parish (LCMS vs ELCA vs WELS). I am not saying they do not care about the specifics of the faith but the ordinary understanding that we might associated with those initials are often lost on these folks. I do not believe it builds you up to tear down other Lutherans but it does require us to be honest about the differences since they will be leaving us at some point and searching out another Lutheran church home.
Finally, the matter of worship "style" must be addressed. Our people are accustomed to a weekly Eucharist, a full sung Divine Service, a well equipped choral and music program, and solid Biblical preaching and teaching (their own words). They have often struggled to find a Lutheran congregation where the liturgy is traditional, the Eucharist is weekly, and preaching is Biblical (their own words). Sadly, they often find the liturgy in the ELCA but long for sermons that are textual and Biblical. They sometimes find the hymnal in use in Missouri but neither a weekly Eucharist nor passion in the pulpit. They usually find in both Missouri (and the ELCA to a slightly lesser extent) a contemporary service without the use of the hymnal or the liturgy, without a weekly Eucharist, and with preaching that is, well, more relational and motivational than Biblical.
So those people who come and do not stay long, fall in love with the liturgy and expect the weekly Eucharist and anticipate passionate proclamation of the Law and Gospel in the pulpit... but then leave only to have to search for something that comes close. I should say that we are not unique or uniquely qualified to do what we do -- it is just that so many Lutherans have chosen to do and to be something else. And this is the painful side of that mobility. Too often I hear from them that they have not found another "Grace" and they are not referring to me or the building or the pipe organ or the people in the pew -- but to a Lutheran place in which liturgy, Eucharist, Biblical preaching and teaching (with a Law/Gospel emphasis) predominate... And of all the things about these mobile folks, this is the saddest...