On “What People Want Out of Church”

Screen Shot 2017-07-09 at 2.07.54 PM
Anatomy of a hipster pastor (give or take the beard based on gender). (1)

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

Ask most congregations who are welcoming a new pastor what their hope is, and many people will likely say the same thing: “We hope the new pastor will bring in young families!”

We just have to figure out what they want — what do young families want?

Now, putting aside for a moment the people that leaves out, namely older people, childless couples, and single people of all ages and the fact that God calls all those people too, new pastors in any congregation of any size are faced with an immense amount of pressure: get people to come to church and have to figure out: What do people want?

How quickly we forget that church is a team sport. Studies show that the pastor casts the vision, but the biggest draw to any church isn’t the pastor — it’s you. Most new church people come not because they’re attracted by a cool pastor or attractive programming. It’s much simpler: most people come because a friend — you — asked them.

And how often do we think of that as the rest of the world does with its products: as some sort of corporate marketing scheme.

We think we, pastor and people, have to figure it out: What do people want?

Megachurches are even doing this with some success. They have bumper stickers and coffee mugs and laser light shows. They have slick church logos and slogans and male pastors with spiked hair and leather bracelets, reaching out with great success, as my friends and I like to say, to the young adults — of 1993.

Okay, maybe people don’t want that. What do people want?

On the flip side, other congregations draw people in by taking quite a different tactic: strict social rules and controls. They preach a life of being set apart from the world, of singing only traditional hymns and interpreting the Bible as literally as possible and basically being no fun.

They’re generally not the kind of people you want to invite to your cocktail parties, but theirs is a compelling vision nonetheless, one based on the idea that people want structure and rules.

Most mainline and Lutheran churches are caught somewhere in the middle: with some ideas on how to life a clean life that doesn’t harm other people or creation, while also taking the time to laugh, celebrate, and be an active part of our communities.

You’ll find pastors in these three categories, too. The fun ones, the really not fun ones, and the ones that struggle to find a place somewhere in the middle.

I’m one of the fun ones, I guess, just less famous than the most famous ones like Nadia Bolz-Weber. All I can really be is myself, just like you, and like Nadia, I like to be a pastor to “my people” — the namely, my friends, the riffraff. “Not church people” people. 

My home pastor once joked while I was in Lutheran candidacy after two years of pastoring that we really need to get me more tattoos. People like tattoos.

A common phenomenon in my life is to be sitting among new friends around my age, hanging out, having fun, with me in what my San Francisco priest friend likes to call pastoral incognito mode, the kind of getup you all rarely see me in because you usually see me professionally — backwards hat, sneakers, jeans. Everything will be going fine until someone turns to me and says, “Oh, so Anna, what do you do for a living?”

Then I tell them that I’m a Lutheran pastor and I can see the numbers swirl in front of their faces as they try to do the advanced calculus of how many anti-religion comments they’ve made and how many cuss words they’ve said but wait, did the pastor cuss? Is it cool to cuss in front of pastors now? And finally, after a beat, they usually say out loud, “Wait. You’re a pastor?!”

To which someone like my friend Braxton will come to the rescue by saying “She’s the best pastor, because she’s like, not a pastor.”

No one knows what it means, but we’ve all decided it’s a compliment.

Then we usually start talking about Nadia Bolz-Weber or something and if I’m lucky, it’ll end with someone saying, “Okay, you know — I’d go to your church if your church was around here.”

Is that really true? 

I used to think it was, when I was just starting out, fresh out of seminary, hopeful and a little cocky. I believed that I, one person, could “bring in the young people” with my non-traditional pastor-like, liturgical hipster-y way of being in the world, liturgically-colored Chuck Taylors and all. 

But now I know that, even for the folks who do live around here or the ones who wish they did, they probably wouldn’t, or won’t, actually come to “my” church when they say they would.

And you know, that’s really okay with me.

Because you see, church isn’t just here to give. Church is community. Any functional community asks something of us. On a very basic level, it asks that we show up pretty consistently (New Englanders in the summertime notwithstanding). And for a wide variety of reasons these days, that can be hard for people and it’s easy to say what you would do, but hard to actually do it.

You know, like that workout plan or that diet we all would start if.

Then there’s the very basic principle that humans are — arguably increasingly, in our world of fake news and false information — skeptical, cynical creatures. We can usually find things we don’t like about anything.

So what do people want?

Honestly, I don’t think they know.

Jesus seems to be rattling on about the exact same problem in our Gospel reading:

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’, and the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:16-19)

What do you people want?!

They write off John for being no fun. They write off Jesus for being too much fun.

This is an old, common problem with humanity that began with the Church’s very foundations. We in the church just happened to have some time in the middle when people went to church not because it cast a compelling vision, but because that’s what people did. Or, for a good chunk of time, they came because they were afraid of going to hell.

That time is over. And to be honest, despite all the struggles that come with being a pastor today, I’m glad.

I’m glad that you’re most likely here because you want to be here, not because you think that the church is your get out of hell free card, and not because you feel obligated to be here because everyone else in South Hadley is here. 

At Camp Calumet a couple of weeks ago, while someone was going on about the dismal state of the church these days as compared to the 80s, a pastor said, “Honestly, I wouldn’t want to be a pastor in any time other than this one.”

I quickly chimed in, “Me, too. For more than just the obvious difficulties that would’ve made it hard for me to be a pastor before now.”

For a beat, everyone just sat their in silence. Finally, the person who had been reminiscing said, “Really?

“Yes!” my brother pastor said emphatically.

We went on to explain, together, that it’s much easier to pastor people who want to be there, and that we have a greater opportunity to effect real change in the world than we ever have, to cast a vision of unity in a divided world, to actually build bridges to peace rather than entrenching ourselves as puppet-like extensions of one political party or another.

We have a chance to help human beings, of their own free will, build peace in their lives and in their hearts when peace is in such short supply.

So maybe instead of wandering around lamenting the numbers we don’t have anymore, we can cast a vision and go forward, and the vision is the one Jesus gives us today: “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV).

In this busy, violent, divided world, what more can we offer than rest and peace in a diverse community?

So wait. Welcome people? That’s it, pastor? What’d you get that from a seminar?

I can hear the John the Baptist-type preachers now — but God expects something from us!

Jesus answers through the ages, “‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” (Matthew 11:29-30).

In ancient times, a rabbi’s yoke, like the kind you put around an ox to help it pull something, was the rabbi’s teaching. Jesus is telling the crowd that his teaching isn’t burdensome or difficult. His purpose is to give peace and rest, not burdens and religious obligations.

So the time of people coming to church out of obligation is over. Good!

Now we can follow Jesus. Now we can give rest. Now we can build community and make peace. We can repeat Jesus’ tender invitation: “Come to Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. We will give you a place to rest.”

This weekend I was in Saratoga Springs, New York, with Parker, and as usual, we walked by the springs that gave Saratoga its name and made Saratoga Springs a famous place of healing for years.

Those waters no longer considered miracle cures for every ill, yet they still spring up and offer beauty and peace to those who stop. They don’t stop producing water just because people don’t come and drink all the time. They doesn’t produce less water because not as many people came as last year. They don’t harken back to the days when people held their healing properties in high regard with pseudoscience. They don’t wonder what people want or demand anything of those who visit them or change themselves to “fit the times.”

But they are no less beautiful.

Saratoga’s freshwater springs just do what they’ve always done, and what they were created to do: they produce fresh, naturally carbonated mineral water and natural beauty. They continue to be exactly what they were created to be: a beautiful place to rest, take a drink, plant your feet where you are, let your burdens go, and even smile and laugh and splash your friends. So it should be with Church.

Screen Shot 2017-07-09 at 1.55.30 PM
Two of many mineral springs in Saratoga Springs, New York. You can read more about Saratoga’s naturally carbonated springs here.

Because church shouldn’t be about what people want or about what they feel they have to do, or else, we’ll always be frustrated, saying “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance!”

Church should be about what people need, and what they need is what humans have always needed. Peace. Rest. No obligations: just love, and dare we say it, a little hope for the future. May we continue to be a spring of new life, giving people not what they want, but what they need. Amen.

1. Graphic from random (male pastor-centric) article I found here.

One thought on “On “What People Want Out of Church”

  1. It’s kind of strange to me that the children Jesus is describing are actually playing “Funeral.” They are imitating the people paid to be professional mourners – playing the flute for the dance and wailing to get people mourning. Some aspiration – to be a professional mourner. Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to life – not to imitate life, but to experience true life through God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. I am thankful to be a member of church (no matter how small) that calls us to experience and share this new life with others.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s