Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Real Reason People Who Have Left A Church "Can't Go Home Again"

Story 1

John Smith walks from the parking lot toward the church door. He hasn’t been here in several months. I don’t know why. Something at church upset him. Something at home drew him away. A spiritual crisis. No one knows. No one asked. But today John Smith walks from the parking lot toward the church door.

The ushers spot him. They watch him approach. When he’s close enough to hear, one usher places both hands against the inner wall and calls out loudly, “Everybody hold up the walls. They’re gonna fall in if John Smith comes to Church.” The other ushers laugh heartily.

John Smith makes his way through sheepishly, participates quietly in the service, leaves quickly at the end, and never comes to church again.

Story 2:

Joe and Mary Wilson have been away from church for about 6 months. I don’t know why. No one knows why. No one asked them. But they show up one Sunday, sing the hymns, say the responses with good energy. At the peace, the lay worship leader says, “Well where have you two been? I haven’t seen you here in nearly a year.”

“We were here a couple of months ago.”

“No you weren’t. I have been here every Sunday and I didn’t see you. If you were here I’d know it.”

That was their last time to worship at that church.

Story 3:

Alice left the church some years ago to pursue other spiritual paths. But an old friend from the church has died, so she attends the funeral.

At the reception, Nancy, a church regular approaches Alice, “Do you recognize me?”

“Uh, I think so. Can you help me?”

“I can’t believe you don’t remember me. I was at your wedding.”

Another church regular joins in, “How about me. Do know who I am? What’s my name?”

Alice failed the names and faces test, so she went back to a safer place. The Church was just too hard.

An unorthodox hypothesis:

When I consult with churches whose membership has declined, they often express little desire to attract new members. Instead they say they want to win back the “lapsed.” I generally warn them that the so-called “lapsed” are the least likely demographic group to resume regular attendance at the church they left.

There are various explanations for that statistic. It could be the ex-members have bad memories of the church. It could be the “been there, done that” attitude. But here’s another hypothesis:

Our gatekeepers know the people who used to worship with us, so they are better prepared with solid techniques to drive them away. A new person comes in the door. We don’t know him. It may take us awhile to find his vulnerabilities and drive him out. But the folks we know, we can kick out the door in a New York minute. Something else may be going on consciously. Maybe the church folks just don’t know good manners. Maybe there is some personal pathology at work – but it looks to me as if the church system that tries to keep everything the way it is, knows that to keep things stable you have to keep the outsiders outside – even the ones who used to be inside – maybe especially the ones who used to be inside.

That systemic pathology can always be trumped by Grace and Gospel.  That’s the good news. So maybe some of us want to live the Gospel graciously. If we truly want to offer spiritual support and nurture to the people who used to worship with us, and if we want to receive the spiritual support and nurture they may be bringing for us, here are a few simple suggestions:

First basic suggestion:

Instead of going out and trying to persuade all our ex-members to come back, we could just stop being jerks to the ones who come on their own.

Detailed suggestions on how not to be a jerk:
Do not judge, berate, and chastise someone who is in church for not having been there before. The time to do that was when they were absent. You missed it.

Do not make jokes about someone’s past absence or their return. You don’t know what you’re laughing at.

Do not ask people to justify, defend, or explain their absence. Not your business.

Do not ask people the whereabouts of someone (spouse, child, etc.) who you think they ought to have brought with them.

Do not say, “We have missed you.”

In case anyone missed that, “Do NOT say “We have missed you.”

Do not engage the returning member in discussion of a fight or unpleasantness that was going on when they left.

Do not hit a returning member with guilt, shame, or blame.

Do not put the returning member through an inquisition. Do you remember me? The South has its problems but they also have manners. Good manners dictate that if there is the slightest chance someone may not know who you are, you tell them your name and remind them of your connection. To say, “do you remember me?” in much of these United States is regarded as uncouth. In the Church, it is unkind.
So what might you say to a returning member? There are several good options.

“Good morning.”

“It’s good to see you.”

“Hi. How are you?”

“Thank you for coming. I’m glad you’re here.”

But here’s the best thing you can do. When you hear one of the gatekeepers guilting, shaming, or interrogating the returning member, cast manners aside – courtesy to whom courtesy is due – gatekeepers are enemies of the cross of Christ and deserve no courtesy – interrupt, draw the retuning member away and apologize, apologize profusely, for the unchristian behavior of the gatekeeper and beg forgiveness on behalf of the church.

Wisdom adage: If you want someone to come through a door, unlock it.

Second basic suggestion:

Don’t let the people wander off unnoticed in the first place. I could not begin to count the number of unchurched people who have told me they skipped church for a while for one reason or another, but no one noticed they were gone, so they never returned. You don’t wait for them to return before you notice they are gone!

There are two ways to deal with this. The best is to have a shepherd system so that every family in church is contacted (by phone, e mail, personal chat, however it happens) each quarter. The “shepherd” just asks, “How are you? Anything you need from the church? Any concerns about the church I could report to the priest?” That way if someone has been absent, you make caring contact without shaming him or her for being absent.

The other way is to have someone monitor your parish directory and notice whether anyone is unusually absent and have the priest or a lay pastoral care giver call the person to ask how he or she is.

If we pay proper attention to our people, fewer of them will wander off. If we simply treat them with ordinary courtesy when they return, they are far more likely to stick with us.

All to often when relationship breaks down between the church and a member, a goodly share of the fault lies with the church. I suspect we know that, and I suspect that’s why we are so quick to blame the member.


Nurya Love Parish said...

This is honest, brilliant, useful. Thank you.

Fr. Glen said...

One of the absolute finest posts I have read on why members don't / can't come back. Well done!

Unknown said...

Bishop, you're spot on!

Tobyn Leigh said...

This really hits home. Well and needfully said.

Fran said...

BD - This is great. I have seen many of those scenarios in action - and love your thoughts. One question - why would it be wrong to say "I have missed you." When someone is away from the Body - I do miss them. Failing to name that they are missed seems, somehow, wrong. Thoughts?

DBW said...

There's a certain logic to this, and I admit the Bishop has a point. However there are other reasons people are not returning to Episcopal Churches, and I'm not sure that the blame can be laid squarely on the laity.

Cynthia Hallas said...

Fran - I was thinking about "I have missed you" as well. I certainly cannot speak for Bp. Dan, but from my point of view such a statement is only meaningful is someone, or several folks from the parish (not just the priest) have been in touch during the period of absence to let that person know s/he is missed, even if s/he chooses not to respond then. Otherwise, the returnee might wonder "If you've missed me so much why didn't you get in touch?"

montefiore said...

I like this essay, it's happened to us recently...exactly. So often when people discuss church exodus they don't go here. People in congregations would benefit from a class in what not to say... perhaps church would be a more welcome/comfortable place for those of us who find ourselves at the fringe...

Michal Anne said...

I think people feel abandoned when someone quits going to church. Abandonment is a very strong (and usually unconscious) hurt. People deal with abandonment with hostility, indifference etc. When the abandoning person show us, the feeling of abandonment is expressed precisely in the scenarios you have narrated. If I were a bishop, I would help my shrinking congregations identify, verbalize and share their feelings of abandonment. Once those feelings are part of the culture, and there is permission to deal with them thoughtfully, spiritually and in community, the congregation will be much more prepared to authentically welcome people home.

Mike McFarland said...

I really like this article, but I have 1 issue. I have a problem with not saying we missed you. If you genuinely have missed someone and speak from the heart to tell them that they were missed, what's wrong with that?

Mike McFarland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carla D Viltz said...

I have see & heard a lot of this at the two churchs I attend. I have not been to one for 6mos now.

Eric Funston said...

Well said, Dan! Hope your comments get wide publication

Unknown said...

Thanks for this straightforward look at the problem and suggestions for doing better!

Iggy said...

Excellent. You know, I never actually joined the Catholic Church, but I certainly considered it, and one thing I liked about them the most is that they pretty much ignore you and just let you GO TO CHURCH unless you WANT it otherwise.

MANY churches badger you with questions and probably think it's "welcoming" when it's very off-putting.

Iggy said...

[ I have a problem with not saying we missed you. If you genuinely have missed someone and speak from the heart to tell them that they were missed, what's wrong with that?]

I agree with Reverend Dan. "It's good to see you" gets that across. "We missed you" contains the subtext, "Where have you been?"

Gomugirl said...

Don't say "We missed you." because it sounds hollow if no care was taken to express it when they were absent.

Paul Canady said...

Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you!!!

Tim Larson said...

In sum, show some love and compassion.

Jackie said...

Brilliant, and thank you. To push the point a bit further, priests/ministers are too often ham-fisted jerks as well. If the members see that the leadership is being jerky, they take their cue. If brave souls dare buck the dysfunction, they are considered traitors. This all points back to one thing: whose church is it? Few things elicit an immediate eruption from my like this idiot comment: "But it is Father/mother's church, so what can we do?" Gack. It is not, never was, never will be Father/mother's church. It is God's church first, the people's church a close second, full stop. If the priest/minister is of the people, great. If they have either forced themselves or have been allowed/encouraged to be set apart, there is deep trouble in River City, trouble that only a revolution can begin to amend.

eps said...

"We missed you" is a cop out. Who is this "we"? Has my absence been explicitly missed during some meeting of the whole church, yet nobody in the whole church could be bothered to find out whether or not I am still around?

Unlikely. Even if it feels that way.

Speak for yourself. "I missed you" may at the very least be a true expression of your feelings, and if saying that makes you feel guilty for not doing something about it, then perhaps that is a good thing. It is difficult to seek forgiveness for those things left undone until you recognize them.

It's not the church's responsibility to care. It's mine.

Marylin said...

Tried to initiate a "call" system for those not at church for awhile but was discouraged by rest of congregation and priest as "too forward"... (whatever that means!)

JCF said...

Is there a difference between "We missed you" (a universalizing, generalizing, corporatizing, institutionalizing phrase), and "*I* missed you"? A first-person feeling? (Inviting mutual conversation)

It seems to me like there could be a difference in how the two phrases are perceived (OCICBW)

Jeffrey Bell said...

I think that that there are many that want to return to church, myself included. In recent times so many people have been presenting God as somebody that I do not know... I knew him as a child but have not attended church since my confirmation. This misrepresentation of the God as an accuser, always seeking to judge, I do not know! It has inspired me to find him once again in scripture and He has presented himself to me in a glory I never really understood before! That is, His love is all encompassing and never ending for all and that He has a special compassion for those that are embroiled in evil and seeking a way out!
I say to you that the "gatekeepers" are like someone holding a finger in a damn! I do not doubt that Christ is presenting himself to many as he has presented himself to me! I say to the gatekeepers, step aside or you may be washed away by the flood of those wishing to return to Christ's church. Pastors realize that not all Christians are able to attend on the Sabbath (especially in this town with so many working all shifts and days). Please accommodate all that may wish to attend...it is your sacred oath to Christ, is it not? I fear that if you do not you too will be washed away with the gatekeepers...
There are two scriptures that express this very well in my opinion.
The first is Matthew 2:17: On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
The second is Romans 3:10: "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one."
Plainly, if you think you are righteous you are in fact anything but, because to God we are all imperfect. This is the very foundation the church and has always been! It is our duty as faithful Christians to show any who ask, even those that don't, the love that God has for them in all of their imperfection! That He will accept all that know they are imperfect and those that admit their failures to him... It is the very reason the church exists!

Stan Theman said...

I don't go to church because it's boring, takes a lot of time and you have to pay.
I don't see the point.

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