I have the true honor and opportunity to experience many congregations in my work these days. After 25 years serving as clergy in a specific congregation and community I now experience many congregations in a given week. Instead of only serving a church I now serve the Church.
Let me confess it's a strange thing to often be a visitor, an outsider, a guest in a church!
I don't have the relationships, the historical or experiential context, the shared language, or the connection that the average person in attendance has to the congregation. I don't get the "insider jokes," I'm often lost in the building/campus/whole experience, and some-to-many of your customs/traditions baffle me (dwell on this because the reality is I'm really a church "insider"). This isn't all negative though it is common to the experience. Beyond "the show" of worship with the goals, timing, and normal expectations of staff and church leaders I find that as a visitor I'm much more aware of the total context of my time in a church. I'm more aware of the "vibe" I get in a place- the emotion, energy, and feel I get for the congregation at large. I'm most aware of whether average church folk seem to care that I'm present or even engage me in interaction beyond the most basic of greetings. Does anyone say anything to me beyond the usher/greeter and that often awkward imposed greeting during worship? Or is everyone going about their business, their job, and I can come or go or not without a notice? Is it that no one in the church really knows one another, so that you don't know if I'm visitor or member, or is there something more at play? Often church folk seem to be enjoying their reunion with one another and rather oblivious to the potential new members of the church family who are looking for some sort of connection and interaction as they hope to be surprised by God & God's people. Sometimes I make eye contact with someone else who is "lost" or even get into conversation with them as we are the two obvious odd birds in the room.
In many respects I'm becoming more aware of "closed system" churches and "open system" churches (if you've never thought about your congregation in this way it is definitely worth your time and attention). Where a closed system is isolated from its environment an open system allows or encourages interaction and a sense of import and export. As illustration of the concept you might think about the difference between an aquarium and the Atlantic Ocean. There are plenty of other examples as systems thinking has broad applications.
This is one of those things that some of us either suspect or know to be true of churches. Said another way, many churches are closed groups long before they are permanently closed.
The occasional few churches will have an organizational structure and church machinery to attempt to be open. Usually it's a pastor who will identify one of us "newbies" and attempt to pitch us a life line. A small number of churches will have an organic approach to all of this- an engaged, mobilized church culture of every member active in a ministry of invitation and welcome. This takes ongoing attention and persistence. These few churches also seem to be the ones that are operating as church well beyond merely an audience participation strategy with paid staff to do the work with visitors and guests, and are more engaged as a whole church in all the members active in a caring and welcoming approach that seeks out "the other." Do note this is representative of a depth of church culture and mission and ministry which is operating at a high level of discipleship, equipped laity, and shared focus in mission and ministry. They seem to know and act on their reason for being the church/Church and it's not about their needs/consumption of Good News. Such a church- and the members in substantive numbers- claim the place of helping others in honest, authentic, real ways find their place in the Body of Christ in that church. This is refreshing, powerful, transformational ministry at it's best which has impact on the visitor and guest as we are pulled into the spirit of the community of faith.
Of course, many of our churches operate as an "insider's club" with little to no expectation of the community or visitor/s showing up. We forget how to build relationships outside the church. Perhaps our church operates as an island within the community in such ways that creates isolation and separation.
But we all know that an aquarium left alone will create a toxic environment and soon die. The same is true for a church which lacks the inputs and openness that gives life, sustainability, and renewal.
How's it going in your church and community? Who can best assess the health and well being of your system- are you an aquarium or an ocean and how is the flow between the church system and your community going? What would it look like for your congregation to mobilize the vast army of "people in the pews" and shift your church culture so that everyone is part of the active invitation and welcoming team? What might it look like if all of the ministries in your church are oriented toward opening up the congregation to the community- worship, discipleship, age level ministries, outreach, prayer, etc.- as a bridge between church and community?
This would take some effort, some real work, as our natural human inclination is toward setting patterns and habits that quickly lead to closed systems/groups/organizations. What was an open system in one decade, or generation, quickly gets codified. The young adult class from 50 years ago is now full of people in their 70's & 80's yet still called young adults. The contemporary music of the 70's might still be sung in worship as an alternative to the typical organ selection. The people you reached well from the neighborhood 20 years ago may all live in suburbia now, but that's still the tribe/group you reach in the community despite the changes in the immediate neighborhood of the church building. A particular ministry team that formed 15 years ago is still together and there is little to no room for anyone new or to spin off new teams. Perhaps the clergy only have time for serving inside the church organization and don't have the time or freedom to serve in the community (fascinating contrast here between Methodist clergy who were once upon a time appointed to serve a state/region/town as circuit riders and are now appointed to a congregation. It's a distinctive difference worthy of another blog sometime). Is your church oriented toward yesterday, today, or tomorrow?
While most organizations may benefit from a closed system or two it is a death sentence if the whole system becomes some stable/set so that no one, or nothing new, can be added to the group dynamic. It may be that undefined reason why new folk never "check out" your church, or perhaps show up a time or two and don't return due to not seeing they are wanted or have a place. If all the seats are already taken there's no need to return.
In my experience with the Church it appears that closed system churches are the number one problem today. In many respects this is a problem of theology and action, of churches built on organization that is a generation or two behind, of evangelism, outreach, and discipleship not informing the whole of church life, and a laity that is often captivated by status quo in a community that then impacts the reach and effectiveness of a church. I think what we are seeing today, and in the next few years, is the natural consequence of closed system churches which have run their course.
But there is a better way and many churches are finding new opportunities with Good News as the church truly opens itself to the community.