Getting to Know FPC from a park bench.

FPCImage I sat outside Pilgrim Hall (the office and education building where I’ll work in the future) and took this picture of the church right before I went in to preach for the first time. It’s always been an important message in my preaching and my ministry to talk about how we – by which I mean mainline institutional churches – need to remember that we are communities of faith, not just the residents of a particular building. In other words, the four walls are not the description of a church. Nonetheless, as I sat outside that morning I thought about a lot of things in the building that do describe the church I want to work for.

I like the style: Congregational Gothic, I’ve taken to calling it. The marriage of the old wood meeting houses of the congregationalists, while echoing back to the larger Christian tradition of gothic cathedrals. I like that some time in the not too recent history there was a conscious choice to use stained glass to replace the windows, for the sake of light and art and “transported-ness” that it can add to a space. I like that there are so many doors into the church, and that they come from every direction… like the whole world is welcome, no matter where they’re coming from.

Are there challenges in this building? Of course, just like everywhere. It wasn’t until the end of my sermon that I realized there was a crowd in the transept (the seating which occupies the “horizontal” line of the cross floor-plan). I had never even thought to look over at them; I’ve never preached in a space with a transept! I know many churches and pastors that have struggled even worse with issues like this, and I know plenty of places where the building has started to shape the church, and not the other way around. I also know that in many of these situations the conversations about how we worship and how we use our buildings has become a conversation like politics at Thanksgiving… easier, and much quieter to avoid altogether.

This morning, the thing that gave me hope and excitement was the clear evidence all over the building of how this congregation has a history of blending, combining, changing, and making choices to be more truly church throughout all their years. The building is important, but only so much as how it has reflected and served the community within it.

Also, that morning?… I felt like I was home, and where I needed to be.

The New Membership – Aggregation for Media and Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of the NY Times fight over the Pulse news aggregator for iPad. If you’re not familiar, the rough idea here is that the Times has made an attempt to have Apple remove a new RSS news application for violating the Times’s online terms of service. The problem, of course, is that the reader is one of several that simply collect the information that the Times publishes on its public RSS feeds, and allows readers to view it (as it is on the web) in a small browser. It’s not clear exactly what the Times Company’s objections truly are here, but they seem to be around the facts that users might not experience the Times as they mean to present it (presumably because of the fear of ad revenue losses, though the ads are actually rendered in Pulse’s browser), and the fact that Pulse is making money by selling an app that presents NY Times content.

There are parallels between the struggles of new media and new church. Both are diverse institutions that have previously thrived on “membership” as their primary driver of their work. To start with, I want to talk about the communications problem: the fear that modern aggregation of information is destroying the intended identity (and hence revenue stream) of our institutions.

Newspapers such as the Times depended on subscription models that they haven’t been able to translate to the web. The Times seems insistent that there is an animal called “A New York Times Reader.” This was previously true… and easily defined: a NYT reader was someone who found such value in the content (and in a subtextual way, the curation of content) that the paper provided, that they paid to have the paper delivered to them. At most, these readers likely only subscribed to a local paper besides the Times.

In objecting to the use of the Times’s content in other applications, the company suggests that they are sure that this class of people (“NYT Readers”) exists, and still wants to experience the whole of the paper as the company and curate and compile it. They have good reason to, in fact: that’s how they sell advertisements to people. They claim that they reach a special category of consumers who can only be reached through the New York Times. This is at the center of their complaint about anyone “repackaging” their content: you lose the curation that has defined the Times in the past.

The problem lies in the fact that users of the are now comfortable curating for themselves. No self-respecting person in our world today would be able to claim to be well-informed after only receiving their information from one website. Instead, they piece together a stream of information from multiple sources, of which, hopefully, the Times is one. The shift in thinking for the industry is realizing that there is no one category of “NYTimes Reader” anymore. There are instead: “The Technology/Bits blog subscribers”, “Maureen Dowd readers” , “Sports Section readers”, etc. Rather than one big ship, the majority of readers more accurately view the Times as a flotilla of tiny boats that are always — roughly — moving in the same direction. Interacting with these readers happens on a very granular level.

The same is true of churches in the modern-day. Millennials are curating their church lives by aggregating their experiences. They may do mission work with the local UU church. They may relish in the quiet of a high-church compline service. They may identify with the social justice stances of one denomination, but thrill at the liturgy of another. They may worship one place on a Sunday morning, and some place vastly different on a Wednesday evening. This often causes frustration on behalf of churches, because all of these sidestep the basic unit that has defined church life for the past several centuries: membership. Churches, much like media, have been certain that their role is to provide holistic spiritual homes for people… that there is a “1st Church of the Assumption, Plano – member” class of people. In this view smaller numbers of members means that either people are no longer interested in being part of that class (which they may call “secularism” or blame on stances the church has taken), or that the message just isn’t getting out.

All of this means that we have to start providing our content – both church and media – with the assumption that aggregation is the new membership. We cannot continue to operate as giant tanker ships, but rather, must work as well-coordinated fleets of tiny vessels. Churches in particular must fight our urges to drive membership by assuming that all people who participate in one program want to participate in them all. How can we be more comfortable with — and be a welcoming community to — the couple that wants to participate in missions to the homeless, but has no desire to join the crowd at Sunday worship? How can we share our “members” with multiple congregations: between different worship traditions, services, and activities in our daily lives? (Ecumenical work is no longer a “nice thing to do,” it is a requirement for those churches that wish to survive… but more on that later.) Perhaps the hardest question remains: how do we deal with the risk and flexibility required to support ourselves financially when we have a decentralized notion of what a “dues paying member is?”

Burnout and Civic (Communal) Involvement

Interesting article in the Times today that I think has implications for church involvement.

One of the messages as I understand it: burnout and disillusionment have lasting effects on people who engage in community, government, or charitable work. Also, that disillusionment goes far beyond any one organization. The article has a lot more to do with whether or not Teach for America is really configured at this point to produce citizens, or rather just teachers… but I do wonder about the broad pattern as applied to churches.

It’s an increasingly understood concept in congregational living that parishioner burnout is a Bad Thing™. What has not yet been made clear, however, is how churches can hope to reduce that burnout when they are struggling to do the same sorts of things with less and less resources – and less and less people. As Teach for America struggles with the implacable nature of education inequity as a source of burnout, so churches struggle with the implacable nature of shrinking and reconfiguring congregations.

Ironically, both systems are setup to require the influx of more volunteers who will become more disillusioned. (Though this isn’t a straight line, it’s not hard to roughly state… No educational equity = more need for an influx of volunteer teachers who then become disillusioned. Less people in pews = more need for multi-committee, do everything parishioners, who get burnt out from the lack of people in the pews. Rinse and repeat.)

My takeaway from the article is that we need to be more alert to the fact that burnt out parishioners don’t just stop volunteering for committee slots, they can stop going to church… and in some cases lose their faith entirely. Though our responsibilities to our congregations are many, our responsibilities to the larger body of Christ are much, much more.

This is a hard fact. It means that we have to do the work of making our churches DO LESS if we have less resources. It means focusing the congregation like a laser on the things that they can accomplish without exhausting themselves. We have to do this because its the only way to ensure that we don’t continue to weaken the larger church, and because we have to remember that grace abounds, and the ministry we can do today is enough for today, and tomorrow will have its own ministry. A model of church that advocated an ever expanding menu of church programs has given us shrinking congregations and burnout. Is there a way we can grow… by limiting ourselves?