Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Beyond Willow Creek

Group Publishing's Lifetree Cafe curriculum seeks to help churches facilitate faith-based dialogues about contemporary topics.  This week's topic?  The disappearance of "seekers."  Thom Schultz helps frame the discussion in the promotional email that arrived in my inbox today:
A new Pew Research Center study depicts the growing reality of the vanishing seeker. Most Americans do not regularly attend church. And the fastest growing sector is the “nones”–those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. This segment grew from 15 percent to 20 percent in just the last five years. Among those aged 18-29, the unaffiliated encompasses 32 percent of the population.
Those aren't "seekers"--they're "nones."  They are not actively seeking a religious experience.  In other words, the increasing majority of people who visit our churches are from other churches--our continued use of the "seeker-friendly" service model winds up preaching to the choir.

Willow Creek in Illinois has long been a leader in the seeker-friendly worship movement, the premise of which is to cultivate a worship experience that mirrors much of the secular cultural experience of the "seeker" in their daily life--pop/rock style music, the professional artistry of a typical concert, worship as spectator sport.  In so doing, the thinking goes, we minimize the barriers and hurdles that the "seeker" might otherwise encounter in worship: organ music, smells-and-bells liturgy, congregational singing, theological jargon, etc.  The Pew study is a testament that this way of attempting to stem the tide of the declining mainline Church hasn't worked.

Thom Schultz offers three possible lessons to be learned from all of this:
  1. Look for ways to go to the people on their turf and their schedule, rather than expect the people to seek out a typical religious service that runs on a churchy schedule.

  2. Learn what people are actually seeking, and find ways to meet those human needs. Then form authentic relationships and earn the right to share your faith.

  3. Move from passive spectator services to settings that allow the “spiritually open” to participate, ask questions, and share their thoughts.
In other words, we need to relearn how to actually be the Church, live the faith, and proclaim the Gospel, instead of trying to sell the Church, the faith, and the Gospel as commodities with worship and music as our marketing tools.  Worship, no matter what it's form or content, needs to be approached with a willingness to break it open and reinvent it so that it fosters relationships, meets human needs, and allows for openness and participation.  But more than that, we as worshipers need to get our butts out of the pews and into relationship with those whom we complain don't "show up" for worship.  Contrary to the Willow Creek model's implications, it is not worship's responsibility to target, attract, and sustain the "seeker" or the "unchurched"--it is ours.  Why aren't the "nones" showing up?  Probably because they've been treated as a key demographic.  No one has bothered to get to know them as people.

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