Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why people go to church


Why do people go to church?

I’ve written previous Ethical Musings posts on this subject, including Why bother with church? and Time to market the church.

More recently, the Gallup poll has conducted some excellent research on the subject. I especially commend this post by fellow priest, Jon White, Why people go to church found on the Episcopal Café website. Jon helpfully summarizes the research, which has strong implications for congregations that wish to grow numerically.

My last post discussed the question of what was Jesus’ brand. If we believe that others along with us should follow Jesus and that part of following Jesus is to gather regularly with God’s people to worship God, deepen our spirituality, build community, and to serve others then having an attractive brand is vital. Even more important is to have a community that attracts and successfully integrates newcomers. This requires:

·       Practicing genuine hospitality. We must learn to welcome the stranger, including the stranger in conversations and what’s happening without causing the stranger to experience an unwanted level of attention or any other type of discomfort.

·       Removing barriers to entry. Integrating a newcomer into an established group – for example, a small congregation, study group, or other gathering – requires recognizing and dismantling the group’s barriers to entry to permit newcomers to feel welcome and then to join. What are barriers to entry? Inadequate signage (who likes to ask for the location of the restroom?), insufficient parking (get old-timers to park at a distance), steps that keep the handicapped out – these and other barriers block entry.

·       Offering substantive value for time spent and money contributed. This explains why people rate good sermons their highest priority in the Gallup survey about why people go to church.

·       Congregants honestly sharing their successes and failures in modeling their lives on Jesus. Who wants to worship with a congregation comprised entirely of hypocrites who claim to model their lives on Jesus but whose words and actions blatantly and consistently reveal their hypocrisy? Conversely, who wants to worship with a congregation who allegedly gather in Jesus’ name but who can point only to their failures and never to their successes?

·       Pervasively focusing on helping people to apply lessons from scripture to daily living (do not confuse this with the prosperity gospel!). Attendees, both new and old, seek help with their daily lives.

·       Giving people instruction, encouragement, and opportunity to cultivate their spirituality. This is at the center of what it means to be church. Otherwise, the church becomes a social club, social service organization, advocate for social justice, or other type of non-profit. All of these are good but lack the distinctive spiritual focus of a church.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What was Jesus' brand?


What was Jesus’ brand?

The catalyst for that question was a recent federal court decision in favor of The Episcopal Church retaining its name, trademarks, etc. The decision was against the breakaway group led by the former Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence.

More broadly, continuing globalization makes branding ever more important. Inundated with information and choices not only about religious affiliation and media outlets, but also choices about competing products, services, and even friends, branding becomes a convenient way of narrowing one’s choices. (For choosing friends, think in terms of tribes and clans instead of brands, concepts that greatly overlap.)

Who really wants dozens of choices of soaps, toilet paper, canned baked beans, and so forth? Evaluating each option while standing in a store aisle or sitting at one’s computer would require more time and energy than the task deserves. So, we tend to rely upon brands to help us to find the product, service, or person for which we search.

What was Jesus’ brand, that is, what was his image among the people of Galilee, Judea, and Samaria that attracted people to him?

What is Jesus’ brand today?

For some, Jesus’ brand is increasingly identified with Donald Trump. Christian evangelical endorsements of Trump have largely remained constant in spite of personal behavior (adultery, lying, verbally berating people, etc.) and public acts (demanding unquestioning personal loyalty, statements that at a minimum imply condoning racist attitudes, etc.) that are prima facie incompatible with Christian teachings. These endorsements of Trump seem akin to biblical declarations of God using non-Christian leaders (e.g., the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzar) as God’s instruments. In the case of Trump, Christian endorsers believe God may use him to outlaw abortion, to wrest control of the judiciary from anti-Christian liberal judges, and to preserve American exceptionalism.

For others, Jesus’ brand emphasizes loving our neighbors (all of them, near and distant!), caring for creation, and working toward justice for all. This perspective identifies more with Pope Francis than with Donald Trump, and even more with Francis of Assisi than his contemporary namesake.

If you self-identify as a Christian, does Jesus’ define your brand? That is, does Jesus define your identity as person and your image in the community in which you live, whether actual or virtual?