Some years ago I had the opportunity to consult with a congregation with a great history and reputation for having at least one — if not more — internationally known pastors who delivered sermons of great fame and lasting popularity. The principles I discovered in that congregation speak with relevance to the current post-Christendom congregations in North America seeking to address the spiritual journey of the Dones, Nones and Gones.
The facilities of this congregation included an 800-seat sanctuary of great architectural beauty. It boasted masterfully constructed pipes for its organ, which was played from the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary.
The difficulty was the congregation had not conducted a worship service in their sanctuary for a decade. There was no need for 55 to 85 people to rattle around in that oversized place of worship.
What brought me to this congregation was that their pastor of seven years was on a sabbatical as a visiting scholar at a nearby seminary. He was studying the positive impact of Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions on Christianity theology. When I first heard it, I found it hard to see this as a core gospel endeavor. Yet an understanding of world history might indicate some value.
The congregation decided that, while their pastor was on sabbatical, they would like to have their own sabbatical experience with a consultant to help them refocus for their next season of ministry. I get that. Yet it was up to me to figure out what was really going on with them.
The congregation liked the worship leadership of their pastor — particularly his essays that he delivered and then printed the next week. He did not preach sermons. He delivered essays. They were somewhat less excited about his pastoral and leadership skills.
The sense of family and community was strong in the congregation. It was physically illustrated by the fact their worship services were held in a part of their facilities known as the living room. This was a large, warmly decorated room with a baby grand piano. The room would seat about 55 to 60 people in folding chairs.
It was next to a space known as the dining room. Large wooden pocket doors separated the two rooms. When attendance was more than 60 these doors were opened and additional chairs provided. It turns out what happened in this congregation three times in the past decade was that worship attendance grew to 75 to 85, a conflictual issue would arise, a group of people stopped attending, attendance dropped to 55 again, the pocket doors were closed, and numerous people silently thought, “This is good and feels right.”
During my first visit I discovered the congregation had been enjoying their pastor’s essays so much, it appeared they had embraced his theology. Many were following him into a theological wilderness that was hardly Christian. What was interesting is this theology was significantly different than the one expressed in the purpose statement in their constitution and bylaws.
During a second visit to this congregation I prepared a handout on which I had written three statements without attribution as to their source. One statement was the official purpose statement of their church contained in their constitution and bylaws. The second was the purpose statement of my congregation in Columbia, S.C. The third was a congregational purpose statement I crafted after reading a half-dozen of the pastor’s essays.
In a series of focus groups, I handed these out and asked people to identify which statement was the official purpose statement of their congregation. Then I asked them to identify which statement ought to be the purpose statement of their congregation. They could choose the same statement if that fit for them.
The overall results were that the purpose statement I crafted from the pastor’s essays was the statement they chose as their current, official purpose statement. The purpose statement from my congregation was the one they chose as what ought to be the purpose statement.
That weekend I met with the pastor. I shared these results, and it scared him. He knew he was taking a journey out on a theological limb. It never occurred to him his congregation was following him out on that same limb. I about lost it at this juncture and said, “After delivering these essays to them for seven years, they are yours. Now what are you going to do with them?”
Because this congregation did not fit my framework for an evangelical congregation, I had to kick in my backup system as a congregational consultant. It was to look for the Christ presence in the congregation and magnify it.
Going deeper into understanding this congregation, I discovered four identifiable segments. First, was a group of core, mainline Protestant households generally made up of empty nesters and senior adults who had lived in a churched culture all of their lives. They were the core leadership and financial support that kept the congregation viable.
Second, was a group of agnostic Christians. These where people who had been in a churched culture for many years, enjoyed it, but their theology was like a postcard from the edge of Christianity. Believe or not, these were the evangelists within the congregation. They connected with and were in proactive dialogue with the spiritual seekers who passed through this congregation.
Third, were people on the way to becoming Dones. They were disillusioned about what they experienced regarding organized Christianity in congregations. At times it was an oppressive, controlling culture. Other times it was a theology that did not fulfill them in their search or in times of crisis. They saw this congregation as an open dialogue place and sought to connect. Often they would pass through for a year or two, and then move on out of organized religion. They were Done with it.
Fourth, were people possibly on their way into Christianity. There were two types of these people. One were the Nones who had never had a Christian faith, who as spiritual seekers found something in this congregation that encouraged their seeking. They either found Christ-centered faith, or failed to do so and dropped back to search in other places. The other were Gones who are people who had gone on a walk away from organized religion, but were now trying it again. They too either went deeper into faith practice or dropped back to try another re-entry door.
A key element of the third and fourth types of people — the Dones, Nones and Gones — is that they did not stay in this congregation long. Six months to two years seemed to be the sweet spot of their tenure. Either they went deeper into Christianity in search of more theological depth and meaningful spiritual formation, or they dropped out of practicing Christianity through this congregation.
It explains the up and down pattern of this congregation’s attendance over the previous decade. It also shows a small amount of validity to the pastor’s theological wilderness. Perhaps part of what he was trying to do was understand the searching of people not connected with a Christ-centered faith-based journey.
Definitely shown is a congregation seeking to send postcards from the edge of Christianity to the larger churched culture about what reaches seekers who do not know the hymns and songs, the stories and verses, the secret handshakes and the language of Zion, nor understand the faith foundation or organized religion patterns the churched culture assumes.
If this congregation had known to whom they should cry for help, they needed more of the first and second type of people to continue their ministry. A few years later this congregation died, as did its ministry from the edge of Christianity. The postcards stopped coming.