Category Archives: Weekly Worship

Happy Graduation, 20-somethings – and good luck

Every time I hear Tom Brokaw talking about the “Greatest Generation,” I wince.  I understand why he would honor World War II veterans and want to tell their stories, but I’m hoping the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, will be greater.  The reason for this is because things seem a bit of a wreck to me, and I’m hoping they will do some fixing. I’m also hoping those graduating 20-somethings will forgive crap commencement speeches.

A few weeks ago I listened to a white, male, forty-something with this theme: “Be thankful. Be proud. Be great.”  His speech did not get any better than the lame title, worse, in fact.  And just when I was thinking he was too young to say anything interesting, the senior class president redeemed the whole day by saying, “I’m going to be someone who helps other people achieve their goals.” You go, Girl.

When I graduated from Penn we had Denzel. Yes, the Denzel Washington.  I’ll give you the link here because he really was that good.  He told us to “fall forward,” which should be read in the context of Ivy League super achievers unaccustomed to failure – and Denzel was recommending you be willing to fall on your face.  Here’s how he summed it up: “First, you will fail at some point in your life.  Accept it.  You will lose.  You will embarrass yourself.  You will suck at something…If you don’t fail, you aren’t even trying.”  I especially hope the 20-somethings, and all the Millennials, embrace his thinking because as Denzel said, “And let me tell you, the world needs your talents.”

Denzel Washington’s graduation speech at Penn

In case you weren’t already depressed about the state of the world, there was a scientist on the Aljazeera network talking about the tons of plastic frozen in arctic ice.  It’s not bad enough we’re making polar bears extinct or that one day Pennsylvania will have beach-front property, now we have to think about the toxic plastic in the melting ice.   But that’s not all that worries me.

On the way to pondering the Millennials fixing the world, I noticed my 20-something relatives seem adverse to advance planning.  Since I am now the generation who shops for, prepares, serves, and cleans-up holiday meals, I have noticed great difficulty in getting a head count.  In fact the only way to know if there will be representation from that generation is if I see them walking through the door – seldom on time.  Not me, I’m a list person.  I might even add something already completed, but not listed, so I can feel the satisfaction of crossing it off.  Sick.  Yes, I know.  Now you can see why not planning ahead is beyond my understanding.  Still, how can they save the world if they never plan ahead or make a damn list?

In my effort to understand those younger, non-planners I read The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – and How to Make the Most of Them Now, by Meg Jay, PhD, who writes on all 20-somethings, not just Millennials.  In Defining Decadewriting about the twenties she said, “Eighty percent of life’s most defining moments take place by age thirty-five,” (p.xiv).  The current context for today’s 20-somethings is that they are “more educated than ever before, but a smaller percentage find work after college,” (p.xxiii).  Now I’ll be the first to say that money isn’t everything – but survival is, and for most people that takes having a job.  Dr. Jay tells us that those who do have jobs are making less than their 1970s counter-parts, adjusted for inflation.  Here’s the thing, I don’t think they’re going to save the world if they can’t even find a job – or find one that pays the rent.

With all her case studies, research, and good advice for anyone who is floundering a bit, I was surprised that she didn’t talk about volunteering, or civic involvement.  There was a time civic involvement or church attendance were social obligations that only the most nefarious people ignored.  While it is good that these things are no longer empty obligations, it is sad to me that volunteerism continues to decline.

According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, volunteerism in this country has been around 26-27 percent for about a decade with a bump-up after 9/11.  In 2013 it fell to 25.4 percent which may seem insignificant, unless you understand that means that about two million fewer people are volunteering (4/7/2014, p.1).  The Corporation for National & Community Service reports that 65.4 million people volunteered in 2012, and if someone had been paying them it would have cost $170 billion.  Volunteering had been trending up with Generation Xers at 30.1 percent; Millennials are below Xers and the national average at 22 percent.

Volunteering in America

The Pew Research folks define Millennials as 18-29, named for “coming of age” at the millennium.  The Pew Forum’s “Religious Landscape Study” reported that only 18 percent of Millennials currently attend religious services weekly/nearly weekly.  When their Baby Boomer parents were young, it was 26 percent.  If you look at the percent of people who do not affiliate with a religion, 25 percent put themselves in this category.  For the generation in their 40s or 50s, it would be 15 or 14 percent respectively.

The Pew Forum

Here’s some good news, fewer Millennials are homophobic. Among Millennials, 65 percent say they should be accepted by society, whereas it is only 35 percent of people of 65 and older think that.  Our Millennials are not afraid of science, at least that is what I conclude from the percent who think evolution makes sense, 55.  And lest you think they are so liberal they have no moral compass, 76 percent believe there are standards of right and wrong, which is within one percent of older age groups.

Dr. Jay agrees that they are not all good at planning ahead, like my 20-something relatives.  But she agrees with the Pew research people that they do care.  They may volunteer less or have less interest in religion than the next demographic older, but they do care about a sense of right and wrong.  Still, they are better educated but more likely to be unemployed or under-employed. I hope they don’t go all French Revolution on us and storm the castle at Wall Street.  No wait, I would love that. I just hope they don’t revive the guillotine.

Reluctantly, I admit I am at an age that there are things I will not do and probably won’t see.  And though I have done my part to reduce my carbon footprint and recycle, I acknowledge we are leaving the next generation a hot mess. Tom Brokaw can have the “Greatest Generation” because we need the Better Yet generation to fix the mess the Greatest and Baby Boomers have left them. It’s time for a change in focus.  How can we help Millennials do what we didn’t do ourselves? Can I show you how to make a list?  And I’m ok if you’re always late or unable to RSVP, if you’re working on global climate change.  I’m sorry we stole Facebook from you, but you still have Instagram and Pinterest. How about using all these amazing resources for solving problems other than finding a ride to the next party?  I promise I will stop nagging about being on time and making lists.  – J. B. Good

Advertisements

“Open Door” – Closed Minds

If I was younger and had a lot of money, I would go back to school and become a shrink for people who are messed-up by religion.  For now, I am writing a blog while trying to work some things out with you.  To that end, I have written about news stories that are perceived as religion but aren’t.  Well, not today because there are some truly dreadful clergy out there.  (Here’s a link to an all-time awful list posted in 2008 by Foreign Policy.)  My new favorite worst clergy are the type that are up front nearly every Sunday spewing bad theology, usually accompanied by bad psychology, and frequently laced with acidic politics.

 “The Worlds Worst Religious Leaders”

Initially I started visiting churches because I came to wonder why people went at all.  If you are atheist or agnostic and patient enough to read this blog (thank you), then you may still be wondering why and I’m not sure this column will help.  Regardless, here are links to the two prior columns on the weekly worship visit project.

 All Things Religious: “Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship”

All Things Religious: “The Dying Church

To accompany these visits I’ve been reading the Diana Butler Bass (2007) book ButlerBassChristianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith.  She did her own research, far more in depth (and better financed) than mine.  She looked for and found successful mainline Protestant churches and took a close look at what made them vital.  I decided to drive to one of the churches she wrote about, to which I will return later.

I have biked past another church many times and when I was a server, waited on a couple that went there.  (As I recall they said something homophobic and tipped 15 percent.)  Since I intend to visit every church, mosque, or synagogue within two miles of my house, I went.

A word about context, if you are inexperienced with Christian churches.  What used to be called the “Old Testament” is now referred to as the Hebrew Bible, though there are variations in content.  The “New Testament” has the Jesus stuff, as well as writings from early Christianity.  The “Gospels” tell about Jesus life and allegedly quote him.  In my recent visits to Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and UCC churches, it was common to have multiple readings from different parts of the Christian Bible (as with Roman Catholics).  So when the independent “Open Door” church had only one reading from the Hebrew Bible, it was odd.  That is was the book of Ezra, was especially unusual.

One other word of context, this time regarding “independent” churches; “independent” meaning they are unaffiliated with any larger church group or denomination, though you should not assume they are independent thinking.  In fact they are a theological island without ecclesiastical oversight.  In other words, the guy at the pulpit (and it usually is a guy) can say anything he likes.

The primary message that this pastor extracted from Ezra, for which he had PowerPoint slides, was threefold and I think might be used by the CIA to teach agents not to trust anyone.  He warned church goers about the “mask of support, the menace of temptation, and the misery of advice.”  In his 50-minute performance he repeatedly talked about spiritual battles and “Satan’s bag of tricks.”  In other words, just because people appear to be supportive, doesn’t mean they aren’t being used by the Devil.  I interpreted this as don’t trust anyone.  I sat there wondering why any of them chose to trust him for advice.  To me, he seemed to have a lot of issues.  He was nurturing fear and distrust.  If they took him at his word, every human interaction is suspect.  This kind of paranoia is no way to live, and neither is it a Christian way to live.

In the sermon that seemed to never end and the pastoral prayer that was also long and meandering, there were four sarcastic political comments.  Yet in all this time, not one mention of Jesus or reference to the Gospels.  There was no talk about the love of God or Jesus’ ministry of social justice.  There were snide remarks about the NAACP and Palestinians.  Though I doubt that there was much political or economic diversity in the congregation of nearly 200, I estimated racial diversity at three percent.

With this guy, I kept wondering, why is he so angry?  Not his delivery, exactly, but worse, the content.  I do understand that feeling angry and self-righteous attracts a lot of people to religion.  But that clergy should nurture fear and anger is egotistical and irresponsible.  In fact, this is exactly how terrorists are cultivated.

Fortunately, I had taken my Kindle.  I’m sure the locals thought I was following along in my Bible.  Actually I was reading Butler Bass because I desperately needed to remember there are some normal compassionate folks out there.  But I do have 50 Shades of Gray loaded on the same Kindle and could have just as easily been reading that – and it did amuse me to think I might.

Not surprisingly, other than the formal hand-shaking in the service, not one person spoke to me or invited me back.  I thought I saw someone I knew so I even hung around in the lobby for an extra five minutes, and still not a word from anyone.  (Did they know I wasn’t one of them?)

The Church of the Open Door and Closed Minds experience was unlike my field trip to Virginia.  It was 11 hours travel (round-trip, same day) for about a one-and-one-quarter hour service.  I was greeted by several people and invited back.  Even though St. Mark’s was about the same size as “Open Door,” the atmosphere inside was different, even before the service.  Folks were really mixing it up in the large, open interior courtyard.  There were several displays for service projects and they have a “café” that serves full meals twice a week.

In the St. Mark’s sermon, which was about 15 minutes, what I took away was hope and “You are the presence of heaven in this world.”  I think they take this seriously because they listed over 30 areas of service in their weekly bulletin.  (There were none unrelated to proselytizing in the Open Door’s bulletin.) The children’s story at St. Mark’s was about helping kids across the globe.  It was goofy, but sweet with an old guy acting the part of a kid from Ecuador.

I could go on, but I want to emphasize the contrast in these two experiences.  At St. Mark’s there was an atmosphere of welcoming outsiders, a theology of hope and love, and the action of serving the needs of the community – locally and globally.  It is hard for me to understand how these two churches could even be the same religion.  Though really, they are not.  The Open Door-Closed Mind “Church” is the religion of Rev. What’s-His-Name, building distrust, validating judgement and encouraging petty politics.  St. Mark’s participates in a religion of compassion.  I wish it could be said that for every Open Door-Closed Minds church there’s a service oriented community of faith like St. Mark’s.  Not likely, but I’m glad I found one.  – J.B.

Real Estate, Happy Hour and Weekly Worship

My neighborhood is what planners would call ‘older ring suburbs.’  We are close to the city limits (five miles), we have mixed-design housing, and there are actually large, mature trees.  While our house is probably the oldest and most modest in the neighborhood, you can be sure that the majority of our neighbors have granite counter-tops in their kitchens, unlike our c. 1940 pre-Formica.  One close neighbor tore down a 1960-ish two-story colonial and built a mini-mansion on top of it, well beyond the original footprint.  They have an uncharacteristically large yard in which their children seldom play and the hired help grooms.  This house appears to meet the needs of their ego, but I am unconvinced it is truly necessary for their family.  Not surprisingly, this same family needs two trash toters every week, unlike the one everyone else is allotted.

This neighborhood is in a school district where the public school is considered good.  I’m not sure if that perception refers to the quality of the education, the absence of violence, or the real estate.  The highly-paid administrators decided that the condition of the local high school was not becoming of their ego and launched a major expansion.  (The vote for this increase in property taxes took place during an off-peak primary when many retirees were wintering in Florida.)  A friend of mine who is a PhD went to one of the hearings and asked how new buildings would impact the student-teacher ratio and how the property enhancements would improve education.  There was no answer.  Before the final landscaping was completed, the same school claimed budget distress and started laying-off teachers.  Seriously, the grass had not grown next to the newly expanded parking lot when teachers lost their jobs, you know, the people who really do impact the quality of education.

With my local school and with churches, I would question how organizational mission and core activities correspond to theOpenHouseChurchSign real estate.  I have been taking a look at churches and places of weekly worship.  I first announced this research in a previous blog, “The Dying Church,” last March.

“The Dying Church”

According to ChurchPick.com there are about 15 churches or synagogues within two miles of our home.  I have been collecting data and taking notes on these visits.  (I haven’t been to mosques or synagogues yet, but I will begin those visits this fall.)  On my way to visiting 30 churches in 50 weeks, I am about halfway.  I have been to Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker services.  I have nearly finished my Baptist visits which included a small church in a suburban town, a mega-church in the city, a large suburban church (near a strip mall, but not a neighborhood), and an urban, family congregation.

I am collecting measurable specifics in my data, and I am making observations whether these houses of worship are welcoming and/or friendly.  I define this by: 1) Friendly = was I greeted by anyone other than the usher (it’s their job); 2) Welcoming = was I invited to return? 

Most often I go alone, but sometimes my spouse joins.  Now he makes friends wherever he goes, so his presence tends to skew my data slightly.  Still, with or without him, I have been shocked to see how few churches invite me back.  Also, my experience has been that the larger churches didn’t have anyone greet me, beyond an usher handing out programs.  Every place I visited had some ritual toward visitors as part of their service, and many had a structured greeting of each other in the service.  Well, that doesn’t count folks.  If I were sincerely church shopping and not one person talked to me except at the required time, I would not return.  Period.  Once and done.

If I expand my ChurchPick.com search to five miles, I have more than 50 possibilities.  Naturally, folks would narrow their selection to the brand name of their liking, Methodist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are still there are a lot of choices.  If you just need a brand name and a place to go, it’s a buyer’s market.  (I once told someone I didn’t like the town in which I worked because there were too many churches and not enough bars, which inevitably means long on judgment and short on fun.)

The former Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia said it takes 200 people for most churches to be financially self-supporting, but the average attendance of churches is under 100.  This simple math takes me back to real estate.  One church I visited has capacity of 200 and has an average attendance of 60.  There is another church I visited a couple years ago that has dealt with their declining participation by renting to the Christian Scientists on Saturday, the Korean Presbyterians early Sunday morning, then enjoying their own service late Sunday morning, with a part-time priest who participates little in the life of the church during the week and whom they share with another parish.  Kudos for welcoming the Koreans and Christian Scientists, but why do you continue to strap that real estate to your back?

All this finally takes me to Happy Hour.  My spouse and I have a favorite dive bar where you can get a half-pitcher of Yuengling Lager (America’s oldest brewery and a nice beer, thank you) for about $4, and it’s usually more than half-full.  We can either socialize, or sit in a booth and mind our own business.  It is a familiar and comforting setting.  Whether we go there with old friends or by ourselves and we feel welcome.  We are always greeted.  We are always invited back.

I have spent time with more than one seasoned member of the clergy who has reminded church committees that church is not entertainment.  Well, in its ideal state, perhaps not.  I remain unconvinced that church is different from Happy Hour for most people, if they are painfully honest with themselves.  It is an affordable place to go where they expect to meet like-minded people. 

Whether or not church is more than a Happy Hour experience, what kind of worship space do you really need?  How much of the group’s collective ego is attached to the real estate?  Is the building an expression of the church you wish you were?  In the absence of a building, how would you define church?  What I am finding in my visits as a barometer of church vitality is what John Dilulio (former faith czar for two presidents in two different parties) calls “non-member services.”  What are you doing for people other than yourselves?

Whether the Christians like it or not (and lots don’t) this is a pluralistic society.  Religious diversity is not just about denominations, but other religions.  When I think about real estate and religion, I have a dream of one building housing three Abrahamic religions (to start).  The Muslims can pray on Friday, the Jews can pray on Saturday and the Christians can pray on Sunday.  They can each have shared worship space and shared community space.  During the week their young people can use the community space for after-school programs where interfaith community is not just talked about, but lived.  The real estate becomes the metaphor for what each of them could tell you their God expects from them.  And perhaps they could work together to tackle social justice, because there is no end to the possibilities for service there

Let go of the building and redefine what weekly worship and church mean to you.  Find a way to distinguish yourself from Happy Hour.  By the way, Happy Hour is crowded – church, not so much. – J. B. Good

#