May 13, 2015

More than 4,000 churches close their doors each year. “I feel judged.”  Forty percent of Americans say they attend church weekly, but the actual percentage may be half that. “I don’t want to be lectured.”From 1990 to 2000, membership in all U.S. Protestant denominations declined nearly 10 percent, by 5 million, while the U.S. population grew by 11 percent or 24 million. “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.”

Half of all U.S. churches added no new members from 2010 to 2013. “Your God is irrelevant to my life.”

Along with these jarring statistics heard by about 350 members of the Eastern PA Conference in a “Faith Sharing” training seminar, March 21, they also learned four damning reasons why “Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore,” the title of Thom and Joani Schultz’s popular seminar and provocative new book.

It is part diagnosis, part prescription. But if you think there’s a happy prognosis for this acute membership-loss malady, their final statistic might cure you of that notion: “Researchers predict that by 2020 more than 85 percent of Americans won’t worship God in church.”

DSC_0310The Schultzes introduced the term “nones,” describing those who claim no religious affiliation. Many have never attended church. They are roughly 22 percent of the U.S. population and one-third of the “millenial” generation, spanning ages 18 to 29. A spin-off term new to many was “dones,” those who have “been there, done that” when it comes to church and religion. Now, feeling uninspired and perhaps unwelcome, they have left the building, and maybe for good.

But there was medicine prescribed for churches that want to be made well. The Schultzes call it “4 Acts of Love that Will Make Your Church Irresistible.” Modeled on the acts of Jesus Christ, it is their book’s subtitle.

To those who say, “I feel judged at church,” we should say, “You’re welcome just as you are.” But we should really mean it, like churches that practice “Radical Hospitality” mean it.

To those who say, “I don’t want to be lectured” we should say “Your thoughts and doubts are welcome,” and then prove it by inviting them to speak from their hearts openly in “Fearless Conversation.”

To the common accusation, “Christians are a bunch of hypocrites,” our response should be one of “Genuine Humility,” the kind that says, “We’re all in this together.”

And rather than recoil at the brash rebuff, “Your God is irrelevant to my life,” we should try to inspire “Divine Anticipation” by saying, “God is here, ready to connect with you in a fresh way.”

In revealing these reasons for and responses to widespread alienation, the Schultzes used research and tested theories, scriptures and storytelling, small-group discussions and video resources to introduce attendees to new ways of doing and being the “church.” And if not actually new, their ways were certainly more radical and relational than the status quo.

The diverse crowd from across the conference assembled in New Hanover UMC’s impressive sanctuary  for six hours of training. It was the third annual Faith-Sharing training event, following two years of riveting presentations by just-retired World Methodist Evangelism leader Eddie Fox in 2013 and 2014.

Thom and Joani Schultz are longtime owners of Group Publishing, which develops and markets innovative resources for clergy and congregations. They arrived with a bevy of resources to sell, including their other provocative book, Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore.

The Schultzes led their audience through the 4 Acts of Love. They began by asking the crowd what United Methodists are known to stand for and against, and why we may be best known for our prohibitions. The guiding principle in how we approach the nones and dones of the world, Thom and Joani counseled, should be to “lead in love” and be more inclusive than exclusive.

To manifest genuine humility and radical hospitality, they stressed, we should make that approach creatively and consistently, rather than waiting for the world to come to us. It requires shedding arrogant pride and isolationism, and instead becoming more welcoming, supportive and loving to all sinners, even when we don’t endorse their sins.

Participants practiced “fearless conversation” throughout the session, learning a simple model for open discourse known as “pair-shares.” It uses open-ended, non-judgmental questions and listening skills to help people connect and comprehend one another.

Finally, to shed the doldrums and reputation of mediocre worship, they explored “divine anticipation” as a way to help themselves and others truly “experience God at church.” They learned about sharing testimonial “God sightings,” creating guided, meditative experiences to encourage deep interaction with God, and patiently expecting “surprises and wows.”

IMG_3123“We need to tell people what God is up to,” said Joani Schultz. “You must create worship where anything can happen and often does.”

She called Sunday morning worship for many “the most non-innovative hour of our lives.” That reality was poignantly depicted in a compelling video they showed, When God Left the Building. Pastors and members of several Protestant churches seemed to be helplessly witnessing the decline of their own congregations while defending and clinging to fading traditions and expectations.

“Some actually see the problem, own it and step forward to fix it,” according to Thom Schultz. “They embrace change, even though it often makes them uncomfortable. Rather than desperately trying to defend the past, they tend to look forward. The successful change agents are not changing God’s message, but they’re exploring different methods to spread the message, to be more effective stewards with the gifts God has given.”

The Schultzes showed another video about their own nationwide effort to help people create settings for the 4 Acts of Love to take root. It’s called Lifetree Cafe, a growing experiment to bring non-church people together weekly for prearranged but open, fearless, topical conversations in cafes and pubs. They gather to chat, become acquainted and explore one another’s lives, opinions and concerns, while enjoying coffee and other beverages. “It’s about reaching the “unreached with the love of Christ in a fresh, new way,” said Thom.

One such Lifetree Cafe happens on Mondays evenings at the Canal Street Pub in Reading, Pa. Nathan Matz, a local policeman who helped start it in 2013 to reach the unchurched, appeared in one of the Schultzes’ videos. Suddenly, to the audience’s surprise, they introduced him, as he came forward to talk about this experimental ministry and answer questions.

While some attendees expressed interest in starting Lifetree Cafes in their areas, others were eager to try “pair-share” dialogues or “God sightings” in worship and other settings.

DSC_0314“My goal can’t be to just teach and preach anymore, but to reach people through relationships,” wrote one attendee on an evaluation form. “I’m excited about exploring ways to build relationships outside our walls,” wrote another. “It’s like we’re just preaching at people when we should be engaging them in conversation.”

Several said they want to focus less on busily working in church ministries and more on creating real friendships with members.

“This has awakened a new hope in me,” wrote one attendee, who perhaps offered the real antidote to all the grim statistics that began the day’s session. “It has inspired ideas and given me lots to pray about.”

John Coleman photos

By John W. Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director