Challenges for Churches: Sound Familiar?

A few years ago, a friend became a Unitarian minister as a second career. He had worked in media for many years and a reorganization forced upon him the attitude that “I am up for a change.” So he went to Divinity School, did his internship at a church in a neighboring town and found his calling as a minister in a small New England town.

So one day we were talking about the challenges his church is facing. The two biggest challenges: getting people out to Sunday worship and money.

Sound familiar?

This week I was reading a blog about churches within the United Church of Christ. There are more than 5100 churches in this denomination of Christianity, serving more than 1.1 million members. The author, Norman Bendroth, made a few observations that I have been thinking about and that are worthy of sharing:

It seems that many churches are in transition. Maybe it is better to characterize this as a crazy time for all religion in North America. Bendroth notes “with the landscape of American religion changing every time you blink your eyes it’s no wonder our congregations are reeling as they seek to make sense of and negotiate these new realities.”

Obviously, synagogues are not alone in terms of the myriad of today’s challenges facing so many houses of worship.

Bendroth goes on … “Churches that are able to move beyond maintaining the institution as their primary mission have the best shot of recovering their purpose and passion for ministry.”

I might alter Reverend Bendroth’s charge with a synagogue and Jewish lens:

Synagogues that are able to move beyond maintaining the institution as their primary mission will develop a sense of purpose, passion and build a strong and vibrant sacred community.

Reverend Bendroth offers three important questions that churches must grapple with and try to answer:

Who are we? (Identity)

Who is our Neighbor? (Mission)

What is God calling us to do and be? (Vision)

Of course we might want to alter the last two questions to this one: “How can our synagogue make a difference in the lives of our congregants and the community?”

Two other questions that I often suggest to synagogue leaders to ask of congregants, individually or in focus groups, is what are the hopes and dreams for our congregation 5 years from now? And how might we develop a road map together in order that such hopes and dreams can be realized?

Much has been written about synagogue change. There is a lot of stuff within the synagogue that we talk and write about changing. Changing the dues model is one example. Having a significant capital campaign and focusing on fundraising in a significant way is certainly changing the way synagogues do business. Monetizing facilities is something else.

Bendroth offers an observation regarding spiritual practices that gives us pause:

Such models of change “can’t replace the practice of prayer, scripture study, worship, meditation and service”. Without these, the church – and the synagogue, too – “becomes just like the Rotary Club at prayer.”

Our focus must be on the sacred, and how we can connect with people, build a vibrant sacred community and help each congregant find meaning in Judaism through worship, study, and social justice. And make the world around us a better place.

If we do this, we will all be better off.

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