By Beth Maynard
During my first ten years in ordained ministry, from when I started in the mid-1990s to the time I became non-parochial in 2004, the pattern by which people became involved in a church was fairly predictable, and effective advice on how to assist them was easy to find. Visitors nearly always, as a first step, arrived unannounced for a Sunday service, usually after checking a Yellow Pages listing or the church website. Greeters or ushers had the job of making these visitors, as we always said, “feel welcome,” and the crème de la crème took a loaf of bread to the home or made some other friendly contact that afternoon.
If the visitors considered the congregation a live option, they would return within a Sunday or two as a way of gathering more information; these visits typically included time at coffee hour to assess how well they fit in with existing members. After a few more such trials, if all met with their approval, they filled out a contact card and joined the ranks of those who “come on Sunday” — a category of parishioner everybody understood, sometimes pictured as the outmost ring in a series of concentric circles.
We all wanted to move people further in that ring. So, depending on the size of the parish, clergy, staff, or volunteers would follow up with likely points of connection other than public worship: Were there kids who might attend youth group? Did the card indicate an interest in outreach or choir? New members could say No to this step further inward while still occupying a recognized place as Sunday-only. If they said Yes, they understood instinctively that part of the step’s value was that it helped them get integrated into the church’s relational system; most of this group soon felt enough investment in the overall parish enterprise that they would turn up for things like workdays and suppers in addition to their main non-Sunday-liturgy connection. They naturally grasped first the need to attend, and then the need to connect and to serve.
“Sunday plus a smaller ministry plus showing up for some other stuff” was another stopping place, but the final step inward was usually committee membership. Motivation for that was already fading by the late Nineties, but there were still plenty of people then who arrived with assumptions about how churches work that led them to see appointment or election to existing governance roles as a plausible final piece of buy-in. They had gotten to know people, were doing a ministry or two, would turn up in support of all-parish events, and now served on the finance committee — and of course they were still coming on Sunday.
We sometimes used more theological language about the process of inviting newcomers in deeper, past Sunday-only involvement, and many of us were even quite sincere about it. But when we said “disciple” we usually assumed the term implied “study program participant, workday volunteer, and vestry member (who also comes on Sunday.)”
Since returning to parish ministry in 2014, I have been bowled over by how much the assumptions people bring with them about how one gets involved in a church — indeed, about what even constitutes such involvement — have changed. The first steps are different, but more importantly the assumptions that undergirded the standard process of moving in the ring have broken down, and tools for addressing these changes at a basic enough level are not easily found.
The experience of small or multi-staff churches may be different than what I am about to describe, but here is how the process looks these days in my parish, a midsized, downtown church in a college town.
The first contact is nearly always electronic: email, Facebook message, form filled out on the website. All of those who contact us this way expect an individual interaction, not infrequently face-to-face, to precede taking the risk of being present at a group activity. While there are still visitors who simply show up at Sunday Mass one week, there are as many for whom a Sunday visit has no obvious outer-ring function. Visitors now might show up at a Christian formation event, email the office about volunteering for an outreach ministry, or come to one of the daily offices. (This latter visitor interests me in particular; 15 years ago it would have been culturally self-evident that such a service would be a more difficult and less representative point of access to a congregation than Sunday morning, but no longer.) In virtually all cases, newcomers under 50 engage only after already having done very complete research via our website, Google, and Facebook. Some tell us they have been reading the sermons online for months before working up the nerve for anything more unmediated than that.
Another first contact point is for someone to have met one or more of us taking part in the life of our neighborhood, often doing something slightly weird in the name of Jesus: staffing a booth at the farmer’s market, chalking the sidewalk around the church, cheering on runners in the local marathon. This deliberate creation of liminal space where the Church is present, engaging in the world as Church but with porous boundaries, seems to be received as culturally plausible on two fronts: first, it helps people who wouldn’t naturally think to seek out a religious organization notice that such a thing as the Church exists; second, benefiting others usually registers positively as “the kind of thing a church should be doing.”
I distinguish that kind of presence from programs, the old-style “seeker-friendly” events we were once advised to offer in neutral space addressing “felt needs.” First off, nobody looking for God wants anything neutral anymore; they gravitate to distinctive, culturally unusual religious stuff. Second, with the availability of TED talks, podcasts, and downloadable courses, it is easy for people to address their felt needs in the exact context they prefer on the exact schedule they prefer with speakers and materials of a far higher quality than nearly any local church could ever provide. What they cannot easily address themselves is the craving for a transcendence that has deeper roots and richer substance than what’s on offer privately via smartphone, a craving that can be evoked any time the Church passes weirdly across their radar.
The contact points are different than they used to be, then, and the next steps are different as well — in fact, so different that my parish is having trouble figuring out what they are or how to help people find them. Our culture has engendered a longing for idealized community, but also annoyance at and fear of the real thing. The younger the newcomers, the less they seem to share the assumption that there even is such a thing as “getting involved in a church.” Many newcomers display the unquestioned default position of approaching the church, not as a body of people with a common mission of which they might become part, but as a supplier of a few items for a longer list of resources they curate on their own time to create their own identity. They come assuming it is their prerogative to define what church involvement consists of: it is very possible for a person who has defined it as “saying Morning Prayer on my phone, posting Episcopal memes, reading the parish email, and attending one Sunday every six weeks” to be shocked at a long-term parishioner who voices the idea that he or she is not really committed. (May I just point out, to any who respond with an eye-roll, that the newcomer here would be investing more average minutes per week in what he considers parish connection than someone in the traditional “comes on Sunday” outer ring?)
The standard old technique to deepen institutional commitment (make three to five relational connections as soon as possible) does not reliably produce it; under the new set of assumptions, that quantity of relationships can be easily formed with no discernible effect on anybody’s investment in wider congregational life. (In fact, it can actually reduce people’s investment as they say, “I feel closer to God having coffee with Karen and Leanne than I did at that parish Bible study with people I couldn’t relate to.”) Connectivity of various kinds with newcomers is fairly easy to make happen, but it doesn’t necessarily entail any sense of obligation to the larger, less gratifying, less affinity-based system of the parish.
In the long run, the “why” of investing in anything that doesn’t contribute to what people define as their reason for having connected with the church is no longer obvious. (Join the altar guild? Work at the all-parish outreach project? Help at cleanup day?) Nor is the “why” that created all the members of the classic “Sunday-only” category of parishioner obvious: that lost sense that being at Sunday Eucharist regularly is the unquestioned first step of commitment. Of course, longstanding parishioners are also increasingly failing to understand the latter “why” and attending less frequently, a trend that only makes it more difficult to convince newer parishioners that cohesive Christian community exists and is worth learning how to participate in.
We have recently given thought in the Episcopal Church to the need to articulate basic theology and mission; we are at last producing some tools on that level to get people reading the Bible or using the Book of Common Prayer or exploring discipleship. We’ve given far less thought, I believe, to articulating what constitutes the ordinary life of a parish, and why participating in it is spiritually important. (Are we confident that it is?) Surfacing the assumptions that made the old 20th-century system work is a first step, and one that may make us decide that some aspects of that system are simply not sustainable, or that we need some differently shaped ministries alongside them for a period of transition. But we should not blame a new generation of seekers because they do not find self-evident all the things we used to assume about joining a church.
We have good resources in the tradition for explaining things like why routine is useful, what benefit there is to all-age events, why stability causes inner growth, why it’s spiritually good to spend time with people who annoy and bore you, and why it’s worth sacrificing some of your preferences, alongside other very basic building blocks of common life. I’m not sure how to best put all that into words for today’s hearers, and even less sure in what venue one could do so. But I am positive that “because the church needs you in order to survive” is not a good enough response.
The Rev. Beth Maynard is the rector of Emmanuel Memorial Episcopal Church in Champaign, Illinois. Previously, she led a neo-monastic community north of Boston.