The club-like church

Is the traditional church held back by club-likeness with a focus solely on its membership?

By Kenneth Meyers

Many churches are failing to imagine being and doing church in the 21st century. Forays into social media, marketing campaigns, new buildings and so much more compose the traditional church response to stagnated vitality and membership.

The traditional church is becoming insular and club-like. The church is no longer chief in culture for folks in their personal discovery of meaning and purpose in life. The church, therefore, misses the spirituality of these folks, many of whom are young.

How will the traditional church respond to people of the 21st century both for its own vitality and for God’s work on earth? Is the traditional church held back by club-likeness with a focus solely on its membership?

In our globalized, pluralistic communities everyone meets or knows folks of different cultures, nations, faiths and backgrounds. These connections take place in the neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and throughout daily encounters. Such exposure to diversity generates interest and knowledge beyond the borders of our familiar spiritual and practical boundaries.

And, this exposure comes at a time when the church is failing to connect with these same people in the community outside the church. On the other hand, the community outside the church is making and appreciating connections in this diversity of people and reflections. This growing awareness conveys a sense of our common humanity. An attraction is established and people desire connections and ultimately the stories of others.

This bonding through shared life stories fosters a commonality that blurs the very differences that the traditional church appears to sustain. Instead, outside the church common threads of truth are embraced across the differences that encourage not just acceptance, but appreciation, if not understanding. From this vantage point, meaning-making for life finds traction outside the church.

These connections further disparage an acceptance of the church as the sole harbinger of truth. The disconnect between church people and community people grows. The church appears to be more club-like and rule-bound (propositional) to the outsider, rather than truth-seeking (connectional) with the world around it.

How does the church engage the community people in such a way that it embraces the common threads between all people and their stories? Can the church be unafraid of the world around it and embrace the ways in which the common quest for truth and meaning are being found in the 21st century?

These questions do not propose any watered-down gospel. People in the way of Jesus continue to speak of their lives as Jesus-followers striving to offer the world good news. But the 21st century world demands that the church accepts its place among other faith traditions and ways of finding meaning and purpose in life.

I submit that the traditional church must reassess its encounter with the community in which it finds itself. The questions cannot just be “who will join” or “will they contribute.” The question must become how we connect with people in the community who are already searching for meaning and purpose under a large canopy of truth-making choices. The church offering is the Jesus way. But we must know our story and let it find its place in the multiplicity of voices.

Specifically, I have discovered a generative model for the traditional church to engage the community in which it finds itself. That model is Charlotte’s Place in New York City. Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church owns and staffs this most effective connection to its community. Here is the purpose statement listed on the website:

“Charlotte’s Place is a free gathering space open to anyone in Lower Manhattan. At Charlotte’s Place, you make the space with whatever you want to do. Come draw on the wall, water the plants, eat your lunch, attend an art workshop, listen to music, read a book, use the free Wi-Fi, watch a movie, or whatever else comes to mind. Charlotte’s Place is open to all and free to use.”

This is radical hospitality -- nothing less and nothing more. It is the church proactively engaging the community without expectation. The goal is simply to provide this safe space and offer radical hospitality. It is radical because it comes without expectation. The focus is: we are out to do a world of good.

Each day the center is open for two hours around lunchtime. The free gathering space becomes fertile ground for the hosts to meet, greet and know. As connections naturally evolve and common interests are shared, the web of humanity makes connections. Life stories are shared. These stories bind people. Ultimately, the discovery becomes apparent -- we are all much alike.

Out of the likenesses and even the differences, the hosts stage offerings that extend the relationships. This is accomplished through a plethora of plans -- movie night and pizza, ballroom dancing, art projects, special studies and lectures, yoga experiences and so much more.

But there is no entrapment for commitments or religion. That is God’s work. The space and circumstance presented out of this radical hospitality are simply offerings to God for the people of God.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.