By Sarai Rice, Congregational Consulting Group
These are tough times for mature congregations. You know the ones I mean– congregations with “parlors” and pipe organs and portrait galleries of past ministers (and carpets that can’t be spilled on and furniture that can’t be moved and relics that can’t be thrown away). Most of our congregations are like this, even though by now most Christians go to some other kind of congregation or just don’t go.
Many of these mature congregations are in a decline and virtually want to grow, but it’s probably safe to say that most of us who are their members are reluctant pioneers, not quite visionary enough to imagine the next new thing or brave enough to endure the hostility and disappointment of those who cannot change.
It’s possible, though, that we’re making this harder than it needs to be. Maybe we just need to try a few things.
For example, in May 2009, a priest at a Buddhist temple in Japan installed a large welcome sign just inside the temple’s main gate that was intended to foster children’s interest in Buddhism. It featured the kinds of images that are associated with Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animation). Each of the temple’s enshrined deities were portrayed in this cartoon format, with QR codes next to each of the characters that would take visitors to a mobile-friendly website that offered information about them. (The image is shown above, but for a better, interactive version, see the article in Tricycle. As you scroll across the image, different kinds of information will pop up.)
The temple’s sign quickly attracted attention, and subsequently there have been some interesting developments:
Not surprisingly, some Buddhists have been critical of these departures from Buddhist tradition while others see this as the most recent example of the common practice of using contemporary art forms to attract new followers to an established faith tradition.
I am not advocating the manga Jesus. (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.) But I do want you to notice where this started–with a sign that was meant to attract the attention of children and make information about the temple and its faith accessible to them directly via their smart phones.
Of course, not all of us have access to clever illustrators, but we do have access to other struggling institutions from which we can learn how to try things–for example, the opera!
My father is a life-long opera buff who spent years working in his office at the university on Saturday afternoons so that he could listen to public radio’s broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances. Love of opera is apparently not, however, an inherited trait, as no one in the family has so far joined him. Nationally, the percentage of the U.S. population who have attended an opera performance is small to begin with and has been in a decline for many years, going from 3.2% in 2002 to 2.1% in 2012. However, in that same period, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s ticket sales were up 15%, subscriptions at the Chicago Opera Theater were up 20%, and two new opera companies were started. So what’s up with opera in Chicago?
In an article last year, Woods Bowman, an economist and subscriber to the Lyric Opera, speculated about the secrets to their success, including:
It’s hard not to think of things a church could try in response to such a list.
For example, along the lines of getting people in the door and losing the stuffy image, the church near Boston described by Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette in Real Good Church has an annual Drag Gospel Festival that was the brainchild of a gay man and drag queen in the congregation. Saturday afternoon is always a talent show at a local restaurant-bar, while Sunday morning worship is led by folks in drag and everyone sings gospel music. As she says, “It is not a spoof of real worship, but real worship, with folks belly-laughing as well as crying their eyes out, knowing that the welcome is real and durable.”
Or consider cutting through the church’s reputation for sitting in one place for a long time by inviting everyone to walk the neighborhood rather than sitting still while doing Bible study. It would certainly be aerobic, and it could be a powerful way to hear Jesus’ words while actually meeting Jesus in your neighbors on the street.
Any congregation can try a few things. Just mix what you already have–signs, Bible study, drag queens–with something new–manga and QR codes, walking, talent shows–and see what happens!
My next article, by the way, is about a process you can use to make “trying a few things” as easy as it sounds. It’s right here.
Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve
Join the Center for Lifelong Learning and Sarai Rice for Change, Organization, and Generosity in Smaller Congregations (Smaller Churches Seminar 2015) on November 2 – 4, 2015. Rice, along with John Wimberly and Dan Hotchkiss will return to go deeper into the material presented at 2014’s Adventures in Vitality. Instructors will each spend one day leading on their area of expertise. Registration and more information here.