Sunday, April 20, 2008

Maturity and community, Part 1

I've been thinking about spiritual maturity and about how we the Church (the "small 'c' catholic" church I mean, not a particular congregation) have failed the current 45+ generation. Now, by "failed" I don't mean "we get an F"; I just mean that we didn't give them sufficient guidance or help to grow to maturity. What we did was give them classes -- content if you will. Many of the current generation know all the books of the Bible and can recite them in order. If you give them part of a Bible passage, they can tell you where it comes from. Maybe they'll remember something about the meaning of some words in the original language. Some of them have taken seminary classes; some hold seminary degrees, even advanced degrees.

But they are neither mature nor connected. By "not mature" I mean if you met them, they might be superficially friendly and cordial, but after talking with them for a few minutes you'd see that they were really more interested in themselves than in you. They don't listen well: either they don't pay attention at all, or they want to tell you about a similar experience, or, worse, give you advice before they fully understand your situation. And whatever the particulars, you get the feeling that you're not a real person to them; you might be an item on their checklist, or a data point on an assessment program, or the target of an evangelism project -- but you sense they don't really want to know you or understand your situation. And you don't walk away thinking, "I've been with someone who walks with God."

By "not connected" I mean that they are not really part of a community. Many in our current generation have been coming to church for decades, but do not have any close friends. Sometimes it's because of the issues above; sometimes it's because they simply haven't taken the effort to make and to be a friend: they arrive at 9:25, attend (would "watch" be too harsh?) the 9:30 service, file out at 10:35, and drive home. They might attend a class on the Bible or church history or something, but their interactions with others in the class are superficial at most.

I'll comment on community first. It may be putting the cart before the horse, but not exactly; whereas maturity facilitates community, it's hard to grow spiritually without community.


When my children were under about 10, they attended various programs in "Children's Ministries" at our church, where the teacher or small-group leader knew every child's name. The agenda in Children's Ministries came from "the top"; it was about introducing the kids to Jesus and helping them learn to trust him and walk with him.

When they got to junior high, the program involved cramming dozens of kids into a darkened room with loud music. If you came to this group, or didn't, who would notice? The agenda, or the message, was less clearly focused on introducing you to Jesus and walking with him; another big part of it was about welcoming kids from different backgrounds, about acceptance, about having fun. Kids were encouraged to take part in single-sex small groups to build community. Because the kids were older, the dynamics tended to be more complex, and the leaders were not always adequately prepared to channel the energies in these groups in the direction of spiritual transformation. The high school program was similar -- large group (I think in the hundreds) with adult-supervised small groups. The agenda for any given group depends on the leader.

I'm not sure what happens at our church for post-high-school young people, but the "adult" program involves some 4000-5000 on the average weekend, spread among 4 large-group services. There are other classes available, but some 80-90% of our attendees come for the one-hour worship service and leave soon thereafter. There is enthusiastic encouragement from the pulpit to get into small groups, but "adult supervision" is given over to volunteers, who may have participated in zero up to a half-dozen leader's training programs. The agenda is driven by the group; a skillful leader might be able to influence the group in some direction, but it's not driven top-down by any stretch of imagination.

So at one end we have staff-led small groups with a top-down agenda (for the kids); if a kid doesn't show up, or does show up, someone notices. At the other end (for the adults) there is much less structure, a less-clear agenda, and a lot more people falling through the proverbial cracks.

A small-church experience

My older daughter worships with a smaller congregation (of maybe 300?) on the east coast, which has a much different feeling from that of ours. Many students (undergraduate and graduate) attend, but not so many that they can't know each other. A meal is served, and some study or discussion happens. A pastor typically attends. If someone doesn't show up one week, people notice; they notice when you do come, too.

During the meal, there is opportunity to discuss personal issues, for people to encourage each other toward love and good deeds.

Societal changes and one difference

In previous decades, not much attention was required to build community because the culture already had the concept of community. But changes in the surrounding society (described, for example in Putnam's Bowling Alone) require us to take countermeasures if we want to see our church develop into more of a community. I believe that my daughter's east coast experience is not just about a smaller congregation, but also because the "Bowling Alone" effects reached us here in California long ago, whereas they have not yet rolled over East Setauket. In particular, I think that the toxic effects of technopoly, which may have been invented here in California, haven't yet spread to Long Island.

What to do?

Trying to overcome these societal changes, particularly here in Silicon Valley, seems like a tough nut to crack. But we have two things:
  1. A command
    And let us consider how we may stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day draw near.

  2. An executive sponsor
    "To whom will you compare me
    Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One
    Lift your eyes and look to the heavens.
    Who created all these?
    He who brings out the starry host one by one
    and calls them each by name.
    Because of his great power and mighty strength
    not one of them is missing


I'm going to write more on this later. Maybe in "Part 2", or maybe I'll update this one.
Update: Part 2 is here.

No comments: