Community & Outreach
David made some good points about my discussion of community. He pointed out that our connection to community goes beyond just church growth, but also includes social outreach. I totally agree, but I want to explore some other dynamics that go along with that.
One of the other characteristics of our particular "mobile/transient" congregration is that many people are involved in outreach efforts not connected with our church. Some people volunteer through work or other social organizations that they're involved with. Many of the opportunities are also tied to their faith. So I think one of the difficulties we have in getting people to commit is not that they don't recognize the place of social outreach in their christian faith, but that they're already reaching out in ways that fit their particular needs and interests.
So if that's the case, what is our congregational response? Do we just say, "Cool! Let us know if we can help you?" Or, "That's great, but you need to be involved with the particular missions of this church." Or?
What I'm getting at is that I think we need to answer the question of whether church is the primary outlet/mechanism for our social outreach, or is it a place that supports the outreach efforts of our members wherever/whatever they might be?
I'll readily admit that I don't know the answer. I think in the United Methodist tradition we do a decent job of letting people know the proper place of outreach in our faith. But I think as churches become a part of our social networks rather than the locus, things get more complicated. In small churches, particularly, it is difficult to offer a range of outreach opportunities that will meet the needs/desires of all of our members. This is an opportunity for building on our connecting missions with other churches, but it also leads people to pursue their interests with other organizations - and I'm not sure that's all bad.
I think the challenge is probably to find a balance and figure out a way that we can help people meet their needs and do outreach effectively.
I've had some ideas bouncing around in my head for a couple of days that are finally ready to put down in some semblance of order. At a church meeting a couple of weeks ago we were talking about community - more specifically, what is the role of our church in our local community. Our pastor expressed dismay/frustration (I apologize if I'm mischaracterizing her opinion, but I think this is the general idea) about our lack of engagement with our neighbors (physically proximate). We discussed some ways in which the church could try to reach out to our neighbors and be more connected with our community.
I didn't say anything at the time, but a couple of things struck me. First, I think we have a vision of what it means to be a church that is based on a mid-20th century idea of what church is. What I mean is, 50 years ago the church was the primary focus of people's lives and people tended to live around their church. But now, for most of the people in our congregation, the church is one part of their life. Their life usually includes other social outreach activities, and probably other religious activities. So to expect most parishoners to devote all or even most of their time to their church is probably unrealistic.
Second, most people don't live near their church. Or probably more importantly, we don't choose our churches based primarily on physical proximity. Sarah and I live closer to our church than most of the people we worship with - in fact our pastor lives probably 15 miles away. I don't mean this as criticism - rather, it is indicative of the fact that our community is based on something other than physical proximity.
What I'm wondering is if the future of our churches is based on building relationships with our physical neighbors? Not that we shouldn't try, but if most of our members have chosen to live elsewhere (for all sorts of reasons - work, school, family, etc.) should we instead focus on the things about our church community that have attracted our current members?
I think we need to reimagine a parish/ward/district based church system and instead think about a system based less on place-specific attributes. Why couldn't we have two United Methodist churches right next door to each other if one was a traditional, high-church congregation and the other was a contemporary, alternative-worship style group?
About four years ago I was doing some reading on social network theory. The idea is that people have networks that they maintain/develop to meet their social needs. Before communication (telephones) and travel (cars/airplanes) became cheap and easily available people's networks were limited to those that lived near them. Thus churches were based on parish/ward/district systems because people couldn't afford/couldn't manage to get to places further away. One way of looking at it was that those communities were "accidental." You couldn't choose who lived next door to you, and because of the limitations of travel and communication it was much more difficult to maintain relationships with those who lived farther away.
But now, we're not bound to be friends with our neighbors because we can maintain meaningful relationships with people who don't live in our neighborhood/town/state/country. The consequence is that we can build more intentional networks. Social network theory is much more complicated than this, but my point is that maybe we should think about building our churches as intentional communities, rather than being bound by outdated concepts of church growth based on accidental communities.
Am I nuts?
So, I ended up taking most of the month of February off. I didn't mean to, it just happened. I've still been reading some blogs here and there, but my mind has been occupied elsewhere. There's a long list of reasons, but here are some of the main ones:
- I love being with my family - I'm constantly amazed by my wife's capacity to love and nurture us, and my daughter just turned one and I love her more every day, though that doesn't seem possible the day before;
- My job, while very fulfilling, is taking up an increasing amount of my time;
- I feel a spiritual void in my life and I'm unsure as to how to fill it;
- I'm finding difficulty finding space in my life for my hobbies - for instance, I haven't read a book in almost two months (virtually unheard of for me).
I also have a tendency to make life complicated for myself. I blogged a while ago about applying to law school. I heard last weekend that I was accepted. But I've come to realize that the schedule required by the law school would be impossible to maintain without devastating my life with my family. Thus I've decided to apply to a Ph.D. program in Public Administration and Policy. That schedule is much more amenable to family life and would probably be more fun, anyway. Rather than staying still, I'm always looking for the next thing. Part of me is inclined to think that's a problem, but the other part of me believes it is an essential part of my character. One of the characteristics that God gifted me is an endless curiosity and a desire to learn.
But I'm going to try to blog more often. I'm hoping that thinking about spirituality and religion in a more focused way might help to get me out of this funk.