The word Sunday in cut out magazine letters on a cork board.

The word Sunday in cut out magazine letters on a cork board. Photo courtesy Thinglass via Shutterstock

(RNS) In a tech newsletter I read, two colleagues addressed the end of the world of the personal computer that they spent three decades mastering.

There will be no more building PCs from scratch, no more tinkering with the innards, no more fine-tuning the operating system.

“The evolution of the PC industry over the last several years has not been good to the old-school PC professional, particularly for those whose careers have been heavily hardware-oriented,” said the writer.

Many clergy and lay leaders are in exactly this position.

Leading Sunday worship — the thing they know how to do, were trained to do and want earnestly to do better — simply isn’t as important as it used to be, and it isn’t where they need to be devoting so much time.

Sunday worship isn’t growing churches any longer. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, kids’ sports and shopping. Young prospects want engagement, not pew-sitting.

Churches grow when they have active small group ministries, high-commitment mission work, lively online offerings, and activities beyond Sunday mornings.

Sunday worship should be part of the mix and it should be done well. But it ends up getting in the way when older constituents remembering an earlier era demand that Sunday receive the greatest share of church resources, that it be the pastor’s number one commitment, and that it be the ultimate measure of success.

Clergy who should be blogging, nurturing small groups, looking for ways like video to reach more people, and using technology to pursue “touches” and “leads” find themselves under fire for putting anything ahead of Sunday worship.

Some of that resistance comes from the clergy themselves. Many believe deep down that their job is to stand up front on Sunday, to welcome the faithful, to lead them in prayer, song and sacraments, to preach with power, and to send them out into the world refreshed and eager to serve.

The problem, however, is that it isn’t working and it probably never worked as much as we wanted. It certainly isn’t what Jesus envisioned. Christians were to share a common life and pray “unceasingly,” not gathering occasionally for worship in a large, walled-off space.

But this Sunday life is what drew many into the ministry. This is what they find most rewarding. And this is what signs their paychecks.

The tech writer said he felt deep “sadness” when he read a colleague’s piece about losing all that the PC world had brought him: purpose, joy, expertise, marketplace value.

I think many clergy feel that same sadness. When what you know how to do isn’t working, what do you do next?

First, don’t expect to find a single answer that’s applicable everywhere. Be an entrepreneur, in the way Jesus was an entrepreneur, namely, adapting to the context; having a fervent vision but flexible methods; focusing on outcomes (transformed lives), not consistency of practice; working outside institutions; being a disruptive force.

Second, use today’s tools (especially technology) to reach today’s people, who are largely diverse, scattered, isolated and not joiners.

Third, proclaim fresh messages that don’t reinforce negative perceptions of religion as judgmental, harsh, condescending, overly concerned with institution.

Fourth, break Mammon’s hold on Christianity by reconsidering facilities, staff and other overhead, and by teaching personal stewardship, not institutional fund-raising.

Finally, stand where Jesus stood: on the margins, in solidarity with people, speaking truth to power, risking everything to declare hope and healing.

Such a faith experience would transform lives and heal a broken world.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

KRE/LEM END EHRICH

20 Comments

  1. Actually Sunday mornings have worked and continue to work quite well. It directly modeled after Jesus. Standing in front of a crowd teaching and providing healing and meeting needs.

    Its not Sunday mornings that are the problem its consumerism and the churches chasing after it.

    • On what basis can one judge Sunday mornings as “continu[ing] to work quite well”? Certainly not on Sunday morning attendance numbers or overall church membership numbers. And in my reading of the Gospels, Jesus more often than not met the people where they were or gathered a crowd to him as he traveled; he did not set up shop and wait for them to arrive on a schedule. Ehrich’s recommendations seem more in line with Jesus’ models. While I agree that consumer churches are not the answer, I don’t think that’s what this article argues. I hope that Christians can continue to find ways to engage in ministry “in” and “with” the world, not just “to” it. Peace …

      • People came to Jesus he didn’t go to them.

        To find out what is working we have to look to where the church is growing the most. Africa, Asia and South America where Sunday morning are transforming lives. If Sunday mornings are not working as well in the US the problem is not the Sunday morning but the self centered attitude of people who expect everything g to come to them on their own terms. The church is doing them a great disservice by pandering g to it.

  2. Tom: Speaking as one Episcopal priest to another, doesn’t your approach actually strengthen the grasp on Mammon upon us all? You defined Jesus, and us, solely by our value as “entrepreneurs”. Unlike an artist or a craftsman or a gardener or a teacher any other of hundreds of vocations, entrepreneurial success is defined solely and wholly by the ability to create a business model that makes money. Now I know the reply is that you didn’t mean to use the term THAT way. I’m making too much out of a simple phrase, commonly used in the culture of late corporate consumer capitalism, to connect with religious consumers. Right?

    Except what if I’m not making too much out of it. What if the whole “business” of “Church growth” is so infected by the DNA of consumerism that it can’t even see what the real sickness is, and this can’t even imagine what the healing might be? Of course I’m naive and paranoid. We have to play the game by the cultural rules given to us so we can be “relevant”. Because the worst thing we could be is irrelevant.

    Unless we choose not to play by those rules.

    • I agree with Nate. It seems that the assumed paradigm for determining if something is “broken” is borrowed from the world of consumerism. What if rather than trying so hard to be “relevant” by the world’s standards (attendance, giving, fans, followers, buzz, sustainability, etc.) we challenged ourselves and the rest of the world with a counter-relevant approach? Such an approach would not be judged by how well it “worked” (how well it boosted attendance, giving, fans, …) but would be the judge.
      I fear that when we determine if something is good by how well it works, then anything that works will judged as good.

      • ralph d stilwell

        I do agree with Chad in his statement, “…. then anything that works will be judged as good.” That has seemed the standard for congregational “success” where I live and observe “church life.” Consideration of the mission of the church and of the ministry to which Christ calls us often seems to be far less a priority.

  3. This argument over what is the “right” way to reach people? This is what turns the modern Christian and/or seeker off. It may work for the 50+ crowd but they’re not the ones you have trouble getting in the building on a Sunday morning, now are they? Perhaps letting go of what we think is proper and instead embracing ways we can reach others is a better use of the church’s time. We can argue all day about the flaws of this society and how difficult those flaws make it for clergy or ministry teams to reach that 18 to 40 demographic using traditional techniques. However, at the end of the day this leads no one to Jesus. Jesus was flexible. Yes, people came to him. He also came to people. And when he tasked his disciples with growing the church he didn’t say, build a nice cathedral, put on some fancy clothes, schedule a service, and just wait for those seekers to come pouring in. He sent them in to the world to see and be seen, to immerse themselves in other cultures, and to follow his examples of meeting people where they are. In these days this involves technology and being flexible with the structure of ministry. The last thing God wants is for us to sit around and wait for people to come to us because our fear of change is stronger than our desire to grow the kingdom of God.

  4. You’re expecting clergy people, from the Mainline Churches, to become entrepreneurs? Good luck with that: on top of the general sense of entitlement typical of the (over-)educated and privileged White/middle classes (the origin of 95% of Mainline Protestant clergy), you have the ideological background that it’s not spiritual to hustle, that the idea that religion could learn anything from business is almost obscene.
    It’s not as bad as it is in Europe, where the clergy think of themselves as a government ministry and as deserving of automatic state funding as roads, but it’s still ludicrously unlike what you’re looking for.

  5. The only sign of flexibility (and it’s a mixed one) is the increasing numbers of second career people; those who know that their chances of living at the middle class standards they feel entitled to will be greatly enhanced if they’re either getting a pension themselves or have access to the salaries and benefits of their partners.

  6. Dear Rev. Ehrich,
    I am sorry that your church is broken. I’d like to invite you to The Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven, CT where I worship and experience a ministry which is not constrained by 4 walls and a roof, nor replaced by technology, neither discouraged by social injustice, nor undone by Sunday late-morning sleepers. The Spirit has transformed us from within, and we shine without (constraint) and throughout (the broken world). Because we were touched (in our souls), we reach (out with our hands), and we give (from our hearts). I guess you could call us an INSIDE-OUT church. But we are definitely not broken.
    Blessings be upon you & yours,
    Joan

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