What Obama can teach the Churches

Over the last two years, we’ve witnessed the rising of one of the most important social-political organizations since the Christian coalition became the effective foot soldiers for the Republican party: Obama’s political campaign.

The campaign should be of immense interest to mainline denominations. Not because Obama shares our political beliefs, which he may not; not because he is a Christian in a mainline church; but because the methods of community organizing hold the key for the rebirth of mainline churches.

Why did Obama campaign work? It had a clear mission. People met people: they knocked on doors; they invited; they began conversations. They told people about the Obama campaign and what it means for their communities.  Community organizing 101 is another name for evangelism, and it is what progressive churches should be doing.

It requires training. It’s hard for shy Episcopalians to meet people and get to know them. Being forward in a ingratiating and commercial way seems false and deceptive.  Becoming more public may ruffle the feathers of the reserved.  Lots of people think that religion should be private, and that public religion borders on the religulous.

But in an organization that truly cares, these concerns can be directly confronted, challenged and mitigated. Our goal is not the verbal assent to a particular proposition about Jesus or an agreement that affirms identical thought.   We do not even presume our thoughts and ideas were as pure and holy as God’s.  Instead, we merely connect with people to build bridges of trust, thereby embodying the trust that God has in us.  We say, that the church is here for them, the unchurched.

Some call them sinners.

Organizing, getting out in the field, greeting and meeting people, might raise the fears of the unchurched and non-religious.   They might worry that I’m encouraging mainline churches to proselytize like Jehovah’s witnesses or the Mormons.   They might be anxious that we will become just a mirror image of fundamentalist churches, inviting people into our peculiar cult.

The first step for us, however, is to let go of the idea that church is necessary.  We should admit that nobody is interested in church. They don’t want to go, and they won’t.  They have pressing problems in their own lives, and for many, church is experienced as parasitical, hypocritical and greedy.

For this reason, let’s not ask them to church.  It isn’t where they are.  And we’d save ourselves a lot of agony if we didn’t pretend it would be easy for us to convince them.  So let’s not do it.  Besides, if we did it for that reason, it would be more out of selfishness than for their own needs.  So when we meet people, let’s eliminate the pressure we have for feeling like we have to drag someone into church who really just has better things to do on a Sunday Morning.  It isn’t necessary.

Instead of asking people if they are saved, or have a church community, our mission is to find out where God is already leading them.  We might not even refer to the word “God.” It’s more important to discern what people are looking for so that we can better serve them, out there, the places where God is also working.

There may be a few people who decide we’re doing the right thing. A few might decide they want to be part of our meaning making institution.  Some might decide they are called to follow Christ and share the gospel.  But there aren’t any guarantees. All we can set out to do is discover our connectedness and mutual interests.  Community organizing is much more about having the church engage the community rather than shape the community for the church’s needs.  Let us be prepared when the subject of “God” or conversations about meaning come up.  Our first role is merely to make a connection.

Because God is also working outside the church to build people up.

The church has an opportunity. Just as people are deeply dissatisfied with the administration of George Bush, there is also a deep dissatisfaction with religion. People think of Christians as homophobic, judgmental, political, and naïve. As Barna has demonstrated, most people think Christians are jerks who want to people to think like they do.

We’ve seen that the idea that knowing Christ makes one a more beautiful, a more loving, a attractive sort of person is not always true.  So instead, perhaps it is time to learn from people outside our churches what a true Christianity could really look like.  Because I suspect they have promising dreams of what Heaven is.

This requires expanding our connections. We’re not good at this. I asked people in my parish how many new friends they had over the last year, the number was small: any new friends they made, they made through the church. Perhaps people in our smaller, struggling churches just don’t make friends in the community, and it’s not worth it to them to invite their friends to their church community. We should ask why.

This will not be easy. The initial challenge for us is to ask: are the stakes high for our churches? Do we have a mission that we care about? Can we describe this concretely, and with passion, comprehensibly?

Many churches have decided that their properties and their liturgy are more important than connecting to the people around them. They have spent their energy mainly on maintaining the old order rather than on offering a vision of the world that is inspiring. These churches are going to find the waters rough in the near future. For example, one priest once challenged his congregation: “Would you die for your grandchildren?” And of course, they all said yes. “Would you change your music for your grandchildren?” The response? Silence. The message: we’d rather be dead than listen to their music.   I have heard plenty of parishioners praise the joys of a small church, uninterested in the high quality of ministry that larger churches often offer.  The consequence:  churches that will remain small and die.

A change in practice will also require a new description of the priest’s role. Priests can’t be caretakers or therapists in relationship building organizations. They will set goals and hold people accountable for visiting. They will be less concerned about the building and more concerned about strengthening relationships within small groups. They identify leaders and call them to share the vision, and the mission, of their church. From these conversations, a priest may learn what role a church can actively play in a community. Priests will also and train parishioners to do the same: meet neighbors, have conversations, and identify ways to connect with the community.  And they will have to be evaluated and held accountable for their work.  No more easy sinecures.

Most important, we can build if we in the church believe what we say. I wonder if the angry conservative wing of the church have the mainline church pegged: we don’t really believe. Do we believe enough that we are making friends with the people around us? Do we believe enough that we think the communities we form are worthwhile? Are clergy sitting in offices, redoing old bulletins, waiting for our retirement, hoping that the few remaining people in our churches will help us buy a little studio when we’re finished? And are our parishioners satisfied that they have their own personal chaplain who will cater to their need to be valuable in a time of crisis?

The churches that will survive are those where the clergy are the sorts who actively train and lead communities into building each other up. It is not merely tinkering with the liturgy and changing the creed; nor is it a matter of simple advertising. It is participating in the lives of people in the community where churches grow. Can they do this? Will they? The past practice has not been encouraging.

The Obama campaign has learned to do this through hard work, strong organization and mutual accountability. The consequence? A black president, an event previously only in the furthest reaches of the popular imagination.

Churches won’t identically replicate Obama’s success. The goal of his election was short term (although surely it hasn’t felt like it); the passions rich; and the mission wasn’t merely about race or religion. There was a deep disenchantment with the current administration, and Obama tapped that.

But who knows what would be on the horizon of a church that sought to know the deepest needs, desires and prayers of the unchurched? It means doing things differently. And perhaps in this election cycle we’ve been shown how.

Perhaps we would begin to learn that people crave the Gospel. And we would learn again how to share it.

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5 comments on “What Obama can teach the Churches

  1. JCF says:

    [Welcome back, Salty Mambo!]

    one priest once challenged his congregation: “Would you die for your grandchildren?” And of course, they all said yes. “Would you change your music for your grandchildren?” The response? Silence. The message: we’d rather be dead than listen to their music.

    I’m not sure that our (figurative) grandchildren WANT to hear *their* music from their (figurative) grandparents (or their church).

    There’s nothing as (immediately!) dated, as trying to capture “what the kids are listening to.”

    Which is NOT to say, that our music may not need changing. It ALWAYS needs to become BETTER…

    …but that may as likely involve going backwards, as going forwards. Or even going “inwards” (more Anglo-Saxon) as outwards (more multi-culti).

    The trick is to find that balance between (necessary) Trial&Error, and (comfortable) Sameness.

    [I make no claims as to how to thread that camel through the needle’s eye! ;-/]

    (A Preview button would be nice, Padre. Here come de typos…)

  2. Thomas Peters says:

    There is much good in this post. At the same time, I can’t disagree more with the following statement:

    “The first step for us, however, is to let go of the idea that church is necessary. We should admit that nobody is interested in church. They don’t want to go, and they won’t. ”

    That’s certainly not true for me, or for the millions of young people that are have been mobilized by the evangelical movement in America. Groups like IVCF, Navigators, Campus Crusade, etc., pile them in on college campuses. Megachurches pile them in in rural communities. Young people are thrilled to participate in church when they are offered something worth going to. And these groups don’t shy away from teaching Christian doctrine or saying the word “God.”

    I’m not an evangelical (or young) any more, but I am deeply skeptical of the claim that the idea of “church” is outmoded, irrelevant, or unsalable to the young. It’s not true. We don’t need to soft-sell the church to get people through our doors. What we need to do is give the young something (doctrine, worship, liturgy, fellowship) they think is worth showing up for.

    My two cents

    • padremambo says:

      I’m using some hyperbole. One of the steps in church development is offering the high quality “something.” The problem is that we don’t always know what that is. Connecting is the first step.

  3. Bruno says:

    connecting and “being real” is the first step. When we try to BE like those around us, rather than genuine in who we are and welcoming the genuine in those around us, the falseness comes through in spades. Sometimes people flock to that facade for a balm, but it soon grows old and moldy and is shed.
    Church as we know it is not necessary, church as a community of believers, workers is helpful. Sharing of gifts is necessary, that means honoring the gifts we bring and welcoming the gifts others may bring, true catholicism. Finding and honoring God in creation around us, and serving that God is what it is all about, what does that God ask of me?
    This is a very difficult balance and goes back to the possible meaning of religion, deep contemplation and thought, or as we like to call it walking with God. How to honor the God in us, who God made us, and how to honor the God in those, and all that is around us? Hard work this, but much more satisfying than just showing up.

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