Monday, January 9, 2012

How to teach a sense of community...

We have no trouble attracting visitors but we have noted of late that many do not return after a couple of weeks.  Discussions have raged about the increasing isolation (self-imposed) of our culture and the fact that Church does not offer to most their primary circle of friendship or socialization (anymore). We have also found visitors less and less likely to give us contact information for follow up (even failing to give us a last name, at times).  We have talked about all the usual culprits in keeping folks from connecting to the community of faith.  I will admit not being altogether convinced that these are all the reasons.  It does not help that others have expressed similar problems -- in very different congregations and in very different parts of the country.

Let me give an example.  I cannot believe that anyone in their right mind is attracted to Mormonism because of the doctrine.  It is a kooky story of an illiterate man who finds golden tablets which an angel comes down to translate and then angel and tablets disappear with only the written text to prove anything.  It is a crazy faith of religious underwear, alien origins, Native Americans who are a lost tribe of Israel, etc.  Only a crazy person would choose this recent so-called revelation over the history and historicity of catholic Christianity.  Yet the Mormons grow.  They send forth their youth on 1-2 year missionary journeys designed as much to solidify them in their faith as to spread it.  And the parents foot the bill.  Why?

I have to hand it to them with respect to community and caring.  Mormons are weak on truth but they certainly excel on community in which truly you are your brother's keeper and it is your duty to inconvenience yourself for the sake of your neighbor.  They are strong on family connections and drawing people in by way of those family ties and community bonds.  They manifest a caring relationship that is so often absent among other churches.  It is my opinion that this is what makes them so attractive.  At the same time, this is the Achilles' heel of most suburban and urban congregations (yes, Lutheran, too).  We have tended to see the care of the poor and needy as either the government's responsibility or the responsibility of somebody who is not me.  Of course there are exceptions but I see our greater weakness as this sense of community and the deep, deliberate connections that bind us together.

I wonder if this is also part of the reason why mercy is one of the three emphases in our Synod's three-fold expression of values (witness, mercy, and life together).  Though it may not be entirely a fair characterization, the LCMS is not exactly known for its compassionate care.  Our life together has been strained by rudeness and smugness as much as conflict and theological distance.  We do not follow Luther's admonition to put the best construction on everything and we tend to be just the opposite of Nathanael (in whom the Lord saw no guile).  It may be that the same trouble expressing how to encourage and move a church body in this direction is why we have not heard as much about mercy as we have witness and life together.  I am not consoled by the fact that my own parish may fairly reflect the weaknesses of my church body in this area.

What I am interested in is not an intellectual discussion about the rightness or wrongheadedness of my observations.  What I am looking for are ways to make a positive improvement in my own congregation's sense of community, means to strengthening the bonds between us as members and family in the faith, and encouraging ways in which we can take responsibility for one another.  If you have some advice and help, please share it with me.  If you have a program or tool or simply an experience to share about how your congregation was encouraged to manifest a more caring attitude and a deeper responsibility toward each other, I would be happy to hear about it....  so, I guess I will wait to hear from you?!


Anonymous said...

Our church is in the process of becoming a Lutheran Blind Mission outreach center. We had Pr Dave Andrus preach and teach at Bible study yesterday. The visually impaired and blind are very much an underserved population. 95% are unchurched. I would classify our church as pretty typical of the synod as a whole, except we are on the larger end of the scale. We are pretty complacent, but still growing a little. We have a social ministry and support our local pregnancy care center. I can't think of anything like this though that we have done since I have been a member here-over 30 years. This will require us to get out of our comfort zone. I hope it translates in to us reaching out in other areas as well.


Janis Williams said...

Mary has hit on it. "Ot of our comfort zone."

I think maybe the key is locating those in the congregation who are already getting out of their comfort zone. Rather than give them the job of reaching out more, why not pair them with those willing to learn? Since 'mentoring' has been a buzz word let's use it.

The lady who brings sackfuls of groceries for the food pantry? Pair her with someone. Let them shop together, to start with.... The man who is always introducing himself, and helping folk find their place? Pair him with a willing younger person...

This takes way more work than a progam with printed materials, steps to follow, and checklists of accomplishments. It takes love, concern and real koinonia.

Anonymous said...

"Yet the Mormons grow."

Yeah, cuz they have kids. Utah has the highest birthrate in the country. Mormons average 3.6 kids per woman. That is what the LCMS averaged before 1960. Hey, when you have more of your own homegrown members, you also have more people to go out and proselytize neighbors. Pretty obvious how that works. 3.6 people can do more than 1.8.

Interesting thing about Mormons, they are the only group in the United states for which number of children increases with mother's education and household income. In other words, poor uneducated Mormons have fewer kids than richer more educated Mormons. The inverse of the rest of us.

Also, Mormons are very much about status within the group. There are rewards in this world and the next for adhering to their rules. They don't tolerate public sinners. They exercise discipline. They don't conflate forgiving your neighbor with tolerating his unrepentant sin.

Mormon doctrine is bunk, but their organizational principles are highly effective. They promote marriage, not abstinence. The problem with the abstinence message is that it is essentially the same as the world's message of license in as much as it is anti-marriage.

Abstinence is the poster child of misguided teaching. It caves in to the cultural pressure of delaying marriage which only became tolerable to individuals when the culture started preaching sexual license. Of course abstinence until age 25 or 30 is absolutely miserable. While technically it meets the biblical standard of chastity, it is essentially a work around because in Genesis we learn first rattle out of the box that it is not good for man to be alone. So, abstinence certainly fails the Mercy part of life together. God's will for most of us is marriage. Probably most of Mormon success and growth is due to being right on this one point.

Paul said...

Marriage and family are the rock upon which society/community inside or outside the church stands or falls. Discouraging early marriages for the sake of career, lifestyle, certainly falls beyond a biblical worldview, imho.
Also, we like using "cluster groups" for fellowship with members and non-member neighbors, co-workers, etc.

Ted Badje said...

Exort your parishoners to be friendly, to engage people visiting in conversation. Your kids will do fine. You don't have to chase them when they're at church. Get out of your comfort zone. If you notice there are single mothers, or mothers with a couple kids by herself, talk with her, and see if she needs help to ready her kids to go to Sunday School, and maybe help with transportation.

Anonymous said...

FWIW: One church story, that has deeply impressed me, is the one about Pastor Russell Lackey and his church: Reformation Lutheran Church in Westminster, California (Rick Ritchie is a member there). Here is an excerpt from Pastor Lackey's story:

"After attending seminary, Russell answered his first call, from Reformation Lutheran Church, in Westminster, Calif. "I had wondered what poor sap would take that call. I guess I was the sap! The church had only 20 people worshipping on a Sunday and had been without a pastor for seven years. When I interviewed there, I asked them why they wanted one." The call committee replied to Russell's query by saying: "We need help in spreading the gospel to this neighborhood." "When I heard that answer, I was hooked," said Russell."

Since receiving Pastor Lackey, they have made the difficult journey of leaving the ELCA and have become a member of the NALC. What has impressed me most is their simple desire to serve their neighborhood. No highfalutin CGM or pretensions of grandeur.

Their story humbles me and I'm a mere laywoman. I may be all wet, but I think both as churches and as families or individuals, we could learn much from their humility.

Warm regards,