Today I had the privilege of moderating a table talk Q&A time at the Bishop's Convocation of the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Mission Territory of the ELCA (we like long names!).
Reggie McNeal (not a Lutheran) and Ken Inskeep, the director of Research and Evaluation for the ELCA. They were speaking to us on the theme of the convocation. Missional Renaissance: Discerning Context and Responding in Hope. Basically, Ken was there to give us some of the nitty gritty research and evaluation that the ELCA has been doing (discerning context) and Reggie was there to talk about that context and how we biblically and contextually respond to it as the church.
What was interesting was that I posted that this would be going on to the ELCA Clergy Facebook site and that if anyone had questions they should get them to me and I would try to work them in. That generated some interesting questions, some general, some specific. But also some wonderment as to what these two would talk about together. There was an assumption that they were interested in different things, different aspects of the church. That assumption couldn't have been more incorrect as it turned out.
So what did we discuss and learn. I don't have an actual transcript, but here are my highlights...
1) We HAVE to get out of the church and into God's World. Ok, this is a DUH thing. However, here are some interesting stats and ideas to back that up.
1a) Inskeep posits that the Pew study recently released actually WAY underestimates the unaffiliated in our country. There are probably another 20-30% of the country who may say they are "Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist" but haven't been to a church in years. As a result, that unaffiliated number is more like 40-50%. So he proposes a 1% principle. For example...
-In his data, in Texas there are approximately 12 million unaffiliated. From that he figures there are about 2.5 million folks who are probably former Catholics, Lutherans or other mainlines (people who are at least somewhat familiar with the story) who are now unaffiliated. 1% of those folks is 25,000 people. If we were to connect with and get connect with that 1% it would double the size of the current worshipping population of the NTNL. So what does that mean? There is great opportunity out there and folks to connect with and you don't have to think in huge numbers. Your church doesn't have to go from 50 to 5,000 to make an impact. 50 to 70 percentage wise is a huge change. Think in people, individuals, make connections.
1b) So how do we do that. McNeal says the first place to go is the schools. Now he cautions there will be those who immediately say the schools don't want us yada, yada. Go there and ask a very good question. "How can we help? What can we do to serve you?" Do that, and mean it, you will make connections. Again, if you can't adopt the school, adopt class, or a teacher, or a student.
2) The institution of the church must change its scorecard (this is Reggie's thing) and must be honest about its barriers (Ken's). We measure what we value and as Reggie said, we have to get out of the church business and into the people business. Counting is not bad, numbers are people. But it is our calling to make sure we are measuring and valuing the right things. Lutherans have a great message to help people in this regard. Our theology and teachings are beautiful and connect with those who are unaffiliated. But our traditions often get in the way. What do we really need to keep? That is what congregations should ask. What do we do because it makes us feel comfortable but for a new believer might be a stumbling block? Those things must be talked about.
3) You gotta be the mission. Reggie reminded us that we are in fact ourselves God's mission. God's redemptive power to bring life starts with us as much as with anyone we might want to reach. So we need to live that. The reality is that many don't want to change, so go and lead. Decide what you are passionate about and move forward with it. Find what your community can do to make its world a better place (no matter how small that is) and do it. Ken showed up clearly that there is opportunity there, people who are potentially open to our message of hope and grace. But we must get into relationship with them to share it.
Finally we were reminded by Ken that we must stop thinking about the resources we have or don't have and believe in God's abundance. Money will follow inspired and spiritually focused missions. As Reggie said, American religion is a $100 Billion business. The money is there, what is it being spent on?
All in all it was an inspiring conversation and I only have hit highlights here. Rooted in the factual reality of what we are facing but hopeful in the reality that all congregations big and small can in fact be vital if they are embodying the mission.
My editorial note is this. We have too many congregations that are stagnant, in decline or just treading water. Too many leaders are ignoring those numbers in their parishes. Pastors expect congregations to be there for them, to provide healthcare and insurance and etc... That can be true, but only if the current generation of pastors make that happen for the coming generation. If your congregation is stagnant or floundering it is your calling to change that. There are ways to move onto God's agenda of hope, opportunities for mission. But first you gotta get out and get on the mission. Don't leave behind a community smaller, less engaged or less energetic than when you were called to lead it. If you do, you cannot expect there to be another engaged, energetic and growing parish waiting for you. Eventually, the numbers can't add up.
We are in an exciting time as the church. The opportunities are there. We don't have to steal sheep from other congregations to grow but we are going to have to change. That isn't easy. But that is the mission. God's mission.