Many of you know that I do Yoga. There are many reasons I do yoga, mainly health, but focus, spirituality, and other reasons as well, but one thing I have realized is that I cannot do yoga alone. I was thinking about that the other day. I have tried to do my own routines, even used computer and IPhone apps to no avail, but something is missing. What I realized, especially after some conversations I had with various people over the past week, is that I need to have community to make it enjoyable.
When I think about a lot of the things in my life, I realize that though I have always been drawn to very individualistic sports and activities, (Biking, wrestling, golf, weightlifting, and so on) what makes them enjoyable is the community that is built around those sports. The interesting thing that I notice is that when I do any of those sports alone, I really don’t do my best, but when I am with others, I always come away feeling like I have really done something special.
I see this a lot in the church and the greater community. There are a couple very interesting trends that are starting to form in the Bay Area and nationally. Call it a response to the virtual world or people needing a break from technology, but young adults, those post college to mid-forties, are seeking intentional communities. Whether that is like the supper clubs that many of our older members will remember from the 60’s and 70’s, or gaming groups, the trend is that people, especially young adults, are actively seeking community.
OK, now here is the real controversial statement: the church is often missing the mark in connecting with this group of seekers because we are trying too hard to attract them. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but if you think about it, the logic is there. You see, after ten years of MySpace, then Facebook, twitter, pinterest, and so on, people are longing for “real” relationships, recognizing that as nice as it is to connect with everyone you ever knew, what happens in those arenas are superficial at best and leave many feeling somewhat empty. What churches often do, though is they ask the question, “what can we do to attract new people” rather than “how can we connect with our neighbors.”
When people are looking for relationships, they may care about music, worship, and other things churches value, but they are often not the deciding factor, it is how they can connect and grow. I often talk to a couple of my friends who happen to live fairly far away. A fairly progressive couple, who love traditional worship and a high liturgy, joined and attend an evangelical church with praise bands and everything else. Every time we talk they complain about how much they hate the services and the “moronic” preaching of the pastor, as they put it. So when I ask them why they go, they flatly say that it is because that is where their friends are.
Interestingly, when I spoke to them about what initially brought them to the church, it was a simple invite to a potluck on a night that they did not have anything else. There was no sales pitch, no one even asked them to come to church, people just were friendly, and despite a difference in theological understandings with the church they found a great deal of agreement with their new friends. Over the years because of the relationships they found ways to be better Christians, better spouses, and, in their words, better people because they were able to connect.
Back in post WWII America the Presbyterian Church founded a group that was called the Mariners. There was a chapter at Westminster. As America took off in the post war booms, work life and urbanization (moving away from immediate families to cities and suburbia) pulled people into a singular work mindset and left many young adults and families without community. The church recognized this and stepped in with a program that was simply focused on connecting people and developing relationships, because we knew that Faith can never really develop unless we have others to help along the way.
Unfortunately, many of these Mariners groups fizzled out because they became static and no longer focused on connecting with new people. Saying that, the underlying success of many congregations in their hay-days can be traced to those programs. The interesting thing about the Mariners was that it was not as much about attracting people to join the church as it was about creating intentional community.
When we think about our church we recognize that when we are working towards intentional community, setting aside gimmicks and formulas, this and that, we see how people come together, get stronger, and I often see that it is at that point where people really open up and begin to grow in their faith and connection with God, at the point where we admit that we need others in our journey.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen