In my former life, I dealt with computers daily before it was common to deal with computers daily. I worked with some of the earliest graphic design software – things like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator – before they were the industry standard. In those early days, we could expect a new software update about once a year, maybe every eighteen months. After a few years the rate slowed to every two years but then Adobe made a change to the software and made it a completely online product with a monthly/yearly subscription. This makes for a more expensive product but now the updates and bug fixes for the program come almost monthly. In fact, there have been nine updates to the program in the last year, all updating automatically over the internet. And Adobe isn’t the only company that works this way. Almost every major software company, from Microsoft Office Products to Blizzard Games and Entertainment, uses a platform like this to keep software updates and fixes almost up to the minute.
There is one place, however, that this mindset is noticeably absent – the church. Some people have looked to their local assembly as a haven from the world, fashioned the services and programs to their liking, and left them that way until those people in charge die off, move away, or that group of believers disbands. I have served churches where one or two people who are gatekeepers, matriarchs, or patriarchs have decided the course of the church with little regard for the actual needs of the people or the purpose of the church. Even in more contemporary styled settings, the founders of the new church plant develop a method and that method becomes the end all be all to their ministry with their own version of gatekeepers. People who do not have a connection through family or community to these places often give up and go elsewhere. According to the Pew Research Institute, there one third of the people who do go to religious services practice their faith in other ways and nearly a third don’t practice at all. The one third of those left who do not regularly attend are would be churchgoers who have left for three basic reasons: they can’t find a church that resonates with them (23%), they don’t like the sermons/message (18%), or they simply don’t feel welcome (14%). I personally think that not feeling welcome plays heavily into whether we like a church or how we respond to the sermons.
While these studies are a good way to look at church trends, my own personal experience – and that of many of my clergy colleagues – points to two basic reasons people stay away from a church: community/belonging and relevance. Do the people feel like they can become a part of the group and take part in the life of the church? Do the gatekeepers give them opportunity to serve, even in dealing with the ‘sacred cows’ of the church? Are people who visit invited back by the congregation and not just the pastor? Does the church teach, preach, and live things that are relevant to the community around them? Does the church meet people where they are with a willingness to help them move forward in faith and life?
We need to ask ourselves these questions about Zion UMC. Are we open, welcoming, discipling, relevant? We need ask ourselves these questions about ourselves. Are we open, welcoming, discipling, relevant? If not, we need to repent and become those things for the sake of the universal church’s mission. If we don’t, we may become a footnote in the history of the community, the church that used to be there.