In a world of Internet clearing houses and 24 hours or less delivery it is hard for a wide variety of specialty stores to survive. Everything from clothes to comic books can be bought cheaper, easier, and in far more variety than you will ever get at the mall or the local shop. Retailers of every stripe, if they are to survive, have to figure out what they can offer that other people cannot.
I am loath for churches to follow capitalist models of growth and success. If you want to count nickels and noses you can make it happen, some churches do. However, I think the metaphor works here. The church is a specialty store in a competitive market. How are we to survive?
Most specialty shops that survive outside of cyberspace do so because they provide two things: an experience and a community.
Once upon a time, there were two things in the average American town that provided community, the church and the bar. Sprinkled on top of that was sports, civic and fraternal organizations, and clubs but those were almost always secondary to the other two. People today want authentic community as much or more than ever. That desire, however, can be filled to various degrees in other places. Social media scratches the itch for most, but everyone realizes that to make something successful you have to create a community around it. The gym, the microbrewery, the yarn shop. All of them are trying to create a community that you want to be in and stay in.
While churches certainly create community, and I believe a more authentic experience of community, they are hard communities to join. In spite of what we say, and maybe even our best efforts, churches feel like insular groups when viewed from the outside. There is no incentive to join. In other places I can say “Do you like this game? read this book? tried this? heard this band?” or any of a dozen other things that communicate one basic message: We have something in common.
How do we communicate that as a church? Living in the same neighborhood, being the same denomination, worship style. None of those things are sufficient any more.
If we want to reach people who struggle with the meaning of life we have to show that we struggle. If we want to reach the hurting, we have to show that we hurt. If we want to reach those that care about helping our world we have to show how we are trying to help our world.
The church can no longer survive as “the place for answers.” No one trusts that anymore. If you feel like everyone else knows the answer and you are unsure you will not feel like you belong. They do not want the answers given to them. They want people who will help them struggle with the questions. The church has to become the place to seek and struggle together. It has to be a place that creates a feeling of belonging, of commonality, of trust, of shared experiences.
How can we do that?
(In part 2, coming soon, I will consider the question of creating unique experiences.)