We need a new way of explaining our institutions to people unconvinced about church.
For some, a church as a monolithic organization with very clearly defined membership boundaries. In some communities you are a member, for example, if you are baptized and confirmed in a congregation, you show up on Easter and or pay $50 in five installments. In other congregations the rules are more rigorous – membership means tithing, membership in a small group, and signing on to a political agenda.
Membership rules can provide a clear direction for an institution and help harness a community’s energy. It’s a lot of work to be out in an indifferent world; it’s easier to coordinate people who have identified an affection for the church.
I suggest there is a way to harness those who have an affection for the church but have not decided about the church’s religious language. While the worshiping congregation is still the apostolic core, the boundaries within that core do not exhaust the church’s work. Churches are not clubs, but networks of relationships and have access to the world in a number of different ways. We should focus on studying the networks we inhabit and how we can enhance them.
A “network” sounds technical, but it more accurately conveys the way people think of themselves as individuals connecting with others. Group membership has become a lot weaker and individuals are less willing to commit to a group of people or an institution. Given that many people are allergic to the costs of commitment, the church will have to find a way to reframe its work in this challenging, ever-shifting environment.
One way is to remember that the physical plant is the hub of other networks. It is also a geographic hub where other networks of people happen. They are also networks of free information and financial exchange: newsletters, bulletin boards, thrift shops and tag sales. Individuals themselves are networked and participate in a variety of institutions.
Churches as networks clarifies about how the church is relatively effective even in an age of decline. While our membership might diminish, churches still harness the power within their networks to remain effective. By continuing to be a publicly engaged place, the community may decide to support it in small ways.
This idea should be studied. The theory is focusing on Sunday attendance will not be the only way of analyzing effectiveness. Numbers and quality of connections, and group involvement should also be analyzed. One of the major strengths as a hub is that Churches provide a physicality, a structure that makes other kinds of connection easier.
It works in way that social media does not. Physicality is one of the central anchors of the theology of church catholic. By its nature, social media is to be used mainly as a tool to enhance and amplify the central work of the church – which is to provide a physical place for people to connect.
For example: the priest, through his/her work embodies a hub in a series of networks: they serve on boards and committees in the community; they meet with other leaders; they challenge their public officials. This is to recognize that this is a central aspect of the priest’s work. A priest is, in some ways, a public consultant for a variety of institutions.
A priest is also in an unusual occupation where s/he is in part a blank figure upon which other people transfer their own emotional needs. Priests who have some emotional resilience can be effective in bridging a wider variety of communities. One role they have is to coach and counsel others to do the same. The priest becomes a model that encourages other people to do their own connecting in the world. They themselves embody the hub of a network.
This should not seem particularly easy, but it should give us some hope. We have plenty of resources – both in the quality of our leadership and our physical wealth. However, there is a skill and strategy to building networks that our inclusive theology conceals. Just telling people they are loved can seem meaningless, weak, and insincere. Saying we are accepting isn’t the same as being accepting. Being accepting takes place in physical environments that people share. It takes a reframing of the daily work of clergy and the ministers of the church to practice this effectively.
My own congregation, for example, has the networks of people who rent the building – which include yoga teachers, dancers, Buddhists and ethnic groups. We are behind an elementary school. We are two blocks from a Methodist center. We have two parks a couple blocks away. In our city there are at least three private universities. How might a congregation strategize to merely connect with those institutions in order to simply learn about their work – not just the institutions, but the people who make their lives in those institutions? The connections we have made have ensured that we are vibrant, even if our numbers have grown only modestly.
It is congruent with the church’s theology in a number of ways. If God is a sort of information that relates to people, then connecting – physically – might just be what the church does. What we do remains important, and the skills are available. The question is whether we can readjust our behavior and do the work. How do we hold ourselves accountable to make the connections with our local institutions and become a more effective hub of reconciliation, or relationship, of hope?