Dear So Many Churches,
Every Saturday this summer, I considered going to church services the next morning. I’m a preacher lady the rest of the year, so this is my time to worship without any leadership responsibilities.
I am a Christian. That is why I want to go to church. I want to hear the Word preached. I want to be part of the body of Christ. I want to sing the songs and be in the incarnate community of disciples of Jesus Christ even if I am not geographically or technically in your local community.
I am also a Unitarian Universalist. I presume that any time, anywhere, I will be welcome to worship with the UUs. I have been a Unitarian Universalist all of my life. I know that I can experience the beloved, incarnate community among our congregations whether or not they retain any outward signs of cultural or theological Christianity. I only want to share the love of God (by whatever name the worship leaders call it – and that name doesn’t have to be traditional). I am also ministered to by worship services that are generically reverent, for instance, worship that focuses on the immanent divine or creative force in nature and human nature.
So I’m actually kind of easy! The only churches I avoided visiting were ones where I knew I would be recognized as local clergy and need to be “on” for that reason. I did not have the energy for that. Sometimes I do. This summer I did not.
That said, here’s why I did not attend your church or why I would not return:
- Your website is completely unhelpful and confusing, eg, your main page announces worship services at 10:00 AM but your interior page about summer services says that they’re at 9:00 AM. No one is in the office when I call on Saturday, of course, and nor does your outgoing message on the voicemail clarify the issue.
And I really, really wanted to visit you. I have heard beautiful things about your congregation but you didn’t care enough about those outside your vibrant community to inform us how we could join with you. It made me very sad. You don’t have an updated Facebook page. In fact, what you have is a pinned post from February promoting your chili cook-off. All the photos are insidery images with no identifying information. There is nothing posted about current programming; ostensibly because you presume everyone should already know. They do not. There are no links to go to to find out where and when you’re doing what you’re doing.
2 You also don’t have a Twitter account. In other words, you’re directing your social media presence to people who are already integrated into the community. This is a grave and common error.
I live 45 minutes away and we are strangers, but everything on your website and social media accounts should keep me in mind. Very few people will even make the multiple attempts I made to figure out how, when and where to find you.
3 Your services are bereft of spirituality.
UUs, this is especially for you.
I can attend a lecture or forum at the Jewish Community Center, the Salem Athenaeum, the ACLU, the Ipswich Historical Society, and many social justice organizations with which I am connected. What I cannot get in those places is corporate prayer, theological reflection and a message grounded in the wisdom of hundreds or even thousands of years of tradition. What I can’t get there is silence held by a people who have faith that they are called to be a people of Love, shaped and oriented in this shared hour to the contours of grace, peace and justice. If you’re unwilling to provide that, I’ll look elsewhere — conversation with friends, private prayer, a walk by the ocean, journaling. If your summer services are a series of people essentially lecturing on a topic, advertise as such. Call them “Summer programs.” Don’t call them worship, and please don’t quibble with me about the old English root of the word in “worth-ship.” Worship has a religious connotation. If you’re avoiding religion during your summer Sundays, you’re engaging in false advertising by calling the gathering “worship services.” It makes you look confused or lacking in integrity.
3 You have an evident immature spirituality.
When I did attend your church, you did not greet me as a soul but as a customer. You barraged me with greetings, chattered at me before, during and after the service. You asked me to join the choir but did not ask me how I am or what promptings of the soul brought me to your church that morning.
You stuck your hand in my face for a handshake, you hugged me, you touched me on the head — you treated me like public property, like a nursery school child, like a new granddaughter. It was alarming, and I felt violated or insulted more than once. Your welcome was not authentic. You did not really look me in the eye. You were performing welcome, and I knew it.
You made assumptions about me: that my husband is at home, that my children will love your Sunday school, or that I’m interested in the singles ministry. Stop pigeon-holing people or trying to match them with others in the congregation you think they’re similar to. It’s a form of objectification.
Your bragging about “how great” your church is makes me feel like we’re on a first date and you’re desperate. Quite frankly, if the church is great, I’ll find out in time. But during our first conversation I don’t need a sales pitch. I need a connection.
You said petty, catty things about your minister or other members in my hearing. I overheard one man grumble to a woman next to him, “Is the pastor absent again?” The pastor had been on vacation, he wasn’t “absent.” And the pastor, an ethusiastic young man, was indeed present that morning — having flown back to town at 3 AM.
There was a deafening chatter during the Prelude and you all got up during the Postlude and started loudly socializing with one another. This says a lot to me. A congregation that cannot allow not one second of quiet or peace to allow the spirit of worship to resonate is not a community makes a space for contemplative spirituality or contemplative individuals.
4. You don’t understand the times we are living in.
It is 2018. Almost no one in New England is under any social pressure to affiliate with a house of worship. Church attendance is not only not de rigeur, it is almost counter- cultural. I love and commend all of you who have been church folk for a long time and who continue to be so. However, you have to know that new seekers (especially anyone under fifty) are probably not visiting in order to fit in with the neighbors, to network professionally, or even primarily to find a way to engage with social justice. They might be, but most likely — in fact, almost certainly, they are looking for a spiritual organization. They want a place and a community with whom they can learn about God/God- concepts, responsibly question or jettison theological ideas they received as children or from the wider culture, and attend to their inner lives.
If they came in order to become part of the Resistance, they need more than information on how to contact legislators or attend the march or accompany immigrants to deportation hearings: they need soul strength and spiritual practices that help ground and protect them against depair. They need the witness of the prophetic ancestors.
They want a place where they can find peace and be given tools for cultivating it within their own lives.
If they are atheists, they want to be an ethical community of encounter and practice, but still within the context of reverence and compassion.
No one is there for therapy, or to be told by an emotionally manipulative minister (however piously) what they feel about the world. They need to see religious people being religious, which is to say living with a sense of commitment to the most profound intimations of their moral sensibility. They need to see those people taking seriously the obligation to discern morality together, and to act on its promptings.
They do not need idle chatter. They need to know that the people who are gathered as a congregation are real; that they tell the truth, that they suffer, that they do not have all of the answers, but that they are faithful to the quest to discover wisdom where it may be found.
Above all, I think, they need to believe that they can grow in some good way along with this community, even if just sharing one hour of worship. If the din of the socializing, requests to fill out forms (no, thank you) and the barrage of small talk and probing questions inform the visitor immediately that the people there do not not how to engage with them as a spiritual being but only as a potential customer, they will not return.
We must learn how to greet souls, not voraciously descend on potential members.
But first, we need to make it a non-mystery to find us and know what time and exactly where we are gathering.