Friday, June 19, 2009

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

Have you had the experience of driving down the Interstate and suddenly looking around and asking yourself, “How did I get here? How did I miss (name the exit)? Where am I?” Sometimes we become so absorbed in listening to the radio, thinking, or talking to someone that we loose track of where we are.

Many church leaders realize that they find themselves in a similar situation. One day they look around at the church they are leading and say, “How did I get here? Where am I?” The situation in which they find themselves is very different from the one in which they were involved in earlier years . . . and it is the same congregation! What happened?

One thing that has happened is that congregants have changed and have very different expectations of their church, its leaders, and their own participation in the church. The people that we are attempting to “lead” have changed the rules of the game. Sometimes the pastor and staff are the last to know!

Let me suggest some ways that church members have changed that may (or may not) surprise staff ministers.

First, there is the authority factor. Just because you are the pastor of the church, you are no longer the primary expert on religion in your church members’ lives. At one time, the pastor was one of the most educated members of the community, but this is no longer true. Most of our congregants have some college and some are avid readers. Religious guidance is now available in books, on television, on the Internet, and sometimes in the movies. The voice from the pulpit is just one of the voices competing for the believer’s attention. Believers have multiple sources of authority available to them, and they may select any of them for guidance.

Second, we have to consider the time factor. If you can get your people for two quality hours of worship, preaching, Bible study, and fellowship each week, you should consider yourself lucky. If they come back on Wednesday nights or participate in some type of service project or study during the week, you should consider yourself blessed. Even the people who don’t have children pulling them in four or five directions are involved in recreation, community service, or additional work. Everyone may have the same amount of time, but the competition for its allocation has increased. The church is just one of the options available.

Third, some may think that we talk about this too much, but what constitutes community has changed. The worshipper in the pew may have more contact during the week with a friend on the other side of the country than with the person sitting alongside him or her on Sunday morning. Internet communication (including Facebook and Twitter) keeps us in touch with friends on a daily basis with status updates, notes, pictures and even videos. Geography and physical proximity are no longer necessary for the building of relationships. The understanding of what constitutes community has changed. Often the church has failed to recognize this change.

Fourth, there is the factor of one’s personal impact. People want to know that they count in the decision-making process. The electoral success of Barack Obama was fueled not only by his charisma but by the development of an online network of supporters (and contributors) who felt that they as individuals could make a difference. Even if they have done very little politically since the election, these folks remember the importance of their individual involvement. In the church, I think there is a real sense that every participant (even if they are not church members) wants to believe that he or she has some influence. A person may not attend every week, but when a “big issue” arises, they want to be part of the decision-making process. People want to be heard.

There are other factors—cultural, economic, political—that affect the church culture in which we labor today, but perhaps those listed above will help you to identify others. How do we address these factors? We will look at some approaches in future blogs.

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