Inviting the Unchurched
By John C. Hamer, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
The 21st century often is dubbed the “Age of the Nones.” The Pew Research Center’s 2015 survey of religion noted that among faith traditions in the USA, the fastest-growing group is the unaffiliated. When asked, “What is your religious affiliation?” 22.8 percent of residents answered “none”—up from 16.1 percent in 2007.
The change is even more remarkable because the unaffiliated are concentrated in the youngest generation. Just over a third of Millennials say they are unconnected with organized religion.
While important, this data does not surprise Community of Christ members in the USA and Canada. For decades, our congregations have grayed and dwindled. What is the cause of this seismic generational shift, and what can we do?
Despite these numbers, Community of Christ is uniquely poised to find renewal. Our path in response to God’s call has given us a rich inheritance of ideas, tools, and capacities that other Christian-tradition churches lack. The things that matter most to us appeal to many non-adherents. By reaching out, we can bring church to the unchurched.
Defining the Goal
What are these unique gifts in Community of Christ, and what can ministry to the unchurched look like? In Doctrine and Covenants 165f we are counseled:
Continue to align your priorities with local and worldwide church efforts to move the initiatives forward. Additional innovative approaches to coordinating congregational life and supporting groups of disciples and seekers are needed to address mission opportunities in a changing world.
This speaks directly to the issue. We live in “a changing world,” and there are real “mission opportunities” to “move the initiatives forward.” This will require something very new. The “innovative approaches” that are “needed” are more than the decades-old ideas like jazzing up Sunday services with contemporary music. This verse calls us to reimagine “congregational life” outside our Sunday services. Innovations are to be grounded in our five Mission Initiatives.
To bring church to the unchurched, we must make honest goals and define what we mean by “church.” If we narrow our definition to a weekly meeting on Sunday morning, and if we limit our goal to getting people to show up and participate, we may find the task impossible. Little wonder if it doesn’t resonate.
Why do we go? Why does it matter to us? What do we find valuable? We must set our sights on the core component or experience that we value. If we can explain that value to others, they will want to share in it.
Relying in part on Section 165:1f, we should not define church as a building or a particular meeting. Rather, it’s people gathered to build meaningful relationships and to live a shared mission. Our goal of sharing that purpose with others then becomes imminently doable.
“Spiritual but Not Religious”
Although the Pew report indicates that nearly a quarter of Americans are unchurched, the population that identifies as “atheist” remains miniscule at 3.1 percent. In the gap, many people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Such people signal that they are spiritual seekers, looking for meaning in life. But they don’t believe this meaning can be found in organized religion in general and Christian churches in particular.
The reasons are many. The short version is that much of Christianity took a wrong turn over a century ago. In walking down the spiritual and intellectual dead-end of fundamentalism, Christians have discredited nearly the entire enterprise. As a result, many broadly equate Christianity and religion with anti-intellectualism, opposition to science, intolerance of diversity, opposition to civil rights, and a judgmental adherence to outdated social mores.
This is a lot of baggage. But Community of Christ is blessed with the understanding necessary to overcome it. Our focus on Enduring Principles—including Worth of All Persons, All Are Called, and Unity in Diversity—is part of a foundation that counters negative expectations. Our experience with women’s ordination and their roles in all levels of church leadership show that our principles are more than just words. Likewise, the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual people in countries that have held national conferences has established credibility.
Our principle of Responsible Choices counters the expectation of many seekers that organized religion is a place of judgment, where they are likely to feel shamed for failing to conform to proscribed rules about relationships and gender roles that seem alien to real life. Rather than insisting on obedience to some written law’s letter, the principle of Responsible Choices understands that doing good depends on individual contexts.
Community of Christ’s unique understanding of scripture sets us apart. No other church practices Continuing Revelation as we do with our open canon of scripture and our ever-growing Doctrine and Covenants. Understanding that “scripture is not to be worshiped or idolized” (Section 163:7b) is sadly rare. Community of Christ’s “Statement on Scripture” insists it must be “responsibly interpreted and faithfully applied” to have meaning. This allows us to put scripture into a framework relevant to our own times.
Finally, our traditional opposition to creeds, our insistence on “all truth” wherever it is found, and our newly articulated “Principles of Faithful Disagreement” all overturn objections of spiritual seekers who remain skeptical of organized religion.
Throughout Christian history, theologians wrote creeds so people who were relatively uneducated could learn good doctrine. However, for the tiny minority of people who were university-educated in the Middle Ages, religion was not about memorized creeds. It was an ongoing exploration of theology and philosophy.
In the developed world, education opened after World War II to a much wider percentage of the population. Most churches failed to revise their educational program to change with the times. While memorizing doctrine and creeds satisfied people with a primary education, those with secondary education often found these lists to be hollow. The solution—opening theological exploration and dialogue to all members—is a natural extension of the trail Community of Christ has blazed.
Practical, Missional Programs
As a church, one Mission Initiative is to Invite People to Christ—to invite everyone to build meaningful community together. If you find yourself unwilling to invite others, if they decline an invitation, or if they come only once, then equating “church” with our traditional Sunday service is adverse to our mission. To fulfill our mission, our idea of “church” must expand to include invitational, missional activities.
In the Toronto Congregation, we have launched three programs where longtime members and new people meet in missional activities. The first two—our Meditation group and our History, Theology, and Philosophy group—launched in March 2016. The third, an intergenerational, inclusive church experience named “All Together Now,” began in October.
Meditation is a spiritual practice that resonates with people who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” A person who might never have been interested in crossing the threshold of a church, might be interested in learning about meditation. Although it has connections with Eastern religions, the practice also is rooted deeply in the Christian tradition.
In Toronto, we decided to begin regular meditation hours following a weekend retreat on spiritual practices led by President Steve Veazey and Katie Harmon-McLaughlin at the Kirtland Temple. Meeting every Tuesday and Thursday at 6:00 p.m. for “after work meditation,” our group meditates on Christian and other parables and invites the Spirit to commune with us in what essentially is an hour-long, often-silent, group prayer.
Our History, Theology, and Philosophy group meets Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m. after the Meditation hour. Designed to embody our Mission Initiative of Developing Disciples to Serve through continually learning and growing, we invite experts to address a wide variety of meaningful subjects. These often are drawn from Christian tradition, scripture, and our distinct Restoration tradition.
In our experience, it’s much easier to invite unchurched people to a lecture on “The Bible’s Powerful Matriarchs” or “What Can We Know about the Historical Jesus?” than to our Sunday school class or traditional Sunday service.
Our “All Together Now” program began with the idea of engaging children in our Sunday service. We traditionally had a Children’s Time as part of our service, inviting kids to the front to be read a story. But we were concerned that the rest of the service didn’t engage young people. Our goal is to make the new format engaging to young people without making it tedious for older members. That way, we experience a Sunday service “All Together Now.”
We retained almost entirely the same format and content (church school, invocation, community sharing, Prayer for Peace, A Disciple’s Generous Response, scripture lesson, mission lesson/sermon, sending forth/weekly challenge). But we added a few new moments of learning hymns, a peace parade, and an educational, interactive game. We made the experience inclusive by setting the sanctuary up so we could sit around tables. We gave every person—young and old—a personalized binder with coloring lesson sheets.
The content of the sheets is entirely Community of Christ: lessons from “What is church?” to prayer, the sacraments, Mission Initiatives, Enduring Principles, Temple, church history, and more. Coloring together encourages all ages to talk about what matters to us as a congregation: building and forming our identity together as a sacred community.
Our first year’s results in Toronto have illustrated that outreach to the unchurched is viable and doable. We invite people to activities through free listings in magazines, posted flyers, social media (sites like www.Meetup.com and Facebook). In its first year, our Meditation group has attracted an average of four to 12 attendees and a total attendance of 558 people. The History, Theology, and Philosophy group averages 12–20 attendees with total attendance of 364.
The new groups have spawned committed regulars who volunteer to help with snacks and to clean up. And we added 96 tithing contributors, including six regulars who have asked for their own tithing envelopes. This has been a very welcome experience for a congregation that hadn’t seen increased participation or growth in tithing rolls in many decades.
Our monthly “All Together Now” services have engaged our young people. One young attendee said it was the best service she’d ever attended. She brought a friend to the next service. Parents have reported that their children look forward to “All Together Now” Sunday. It’s become our best-attended service each month.
Our congregation’s results can be duplicated, but it’s not necessary to follow in our precise footsteps. The key isn’t a Meditation group or a History, Theology, and Philosophy group. We launched these activities because they matched our talents and resources. Any number of missional activities could fill the same role.
Our neighboring congregations in the suburbs have had wonderful success with “Coffee, Coloring, & Conversation” meetups, were people gather to discuss meaningful life issues. The key is to have missional, community-building opportunities that are invitational—activities you like and feel comfortable inviting others to join.
In Community of Christ we have something extraordinary and wonderful. Let’s invite everyone to share it with us!