I believe that the easiest way to be a better person, to be a happier person, to live a life of meaning, is to actively participate in a healthy congregation.
Given the happiness-quest of recent years, I’m surprised not to read this idea more often. Certainly I hear it frequently. For example, on Sunday a usually quiet member of my church said, “Here I’ve found close friends, meaningful volunteer work, and a place that helps me focus on my spiritual growth. The conversations that I share with this group go much deeper than the usual chatter.” Exactly.
To judge by my friends, such vital, soul-nourishing congregations are everywhere. And they come in wide variety of forms…. mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and more.
Yet participation overall is dropping. Why? Doubtless the reasons are many and complicated, but two leap out at me.
The first reason is the Internet. The Web in particular is reshaping our cultures and our lives. We’re bombarded by information and entertainment as never before — and now, with the advent of social media, the net is reshaping the meaning of community.
In essence the Web competes with organized religion. Where congregations could be engaging the Web to augment and extend their reach, instead they shy away.
Of course, that’s what this site is all about — helping congregations overcome the barriers (real and imagined) to the Web.
At times, however, as I natter on about how much church means to me, I wonder if I don’t sound disingenuous. The truth is I never forget the shameful, shadow-side of religion. It’s not typically relevant to what I’m writing about, but today it is. This shadow is the other reason I see for attrition.
Specifically, the second reason is that many congregations are dysfunctional. While the scandals of the Catholic church dominate the headlines, this crisis in morality seems to be rampant in all faiths. It’s certainly not rare in my denomination.
But what’s most toxic and disturbing to me isn’t the initial abuse (ministers are mortal), it’s the all-too-common response of denominational-level leadership. So many do their utmost to ignore it. Ironically, at the same time they wring their hands over the loss of membership.
Why, I wonder, can’t they connect the dots?
Nevertheless, I still believe that active participation in a healthy congregation is the easiest way to be a better, happier person. The key word, of course is healthy. I also think it’s not that hard to find such a wellspring of personal meaning.
It’s a matter of looking for a congregation (or similar faith-based community) that works well for you, assessing its health, and then, if it measures up, really giving of yourself. It’s similar to looking for a good doctor, and once you find one, paying attention to his or her advice.
How Do You Assess the Health and Vitality of a Congregation?
It’s easy to be seduced by first-rate sermons and compelling programs. But those are superficial, and while I hope your congregation’s sermons are tip-top and the music is stellar, pretty is as pretty does. Such things are not a reliable measure of its true nature.
Instead, here are four questions I use to gauge a congregation’s health.
1. What motivates the senior leadership? Watch and listen. Can you tell if it’s power, money or sex? It’s often hard to spot such things, but at times it’s flagrant, and when it is, the answer is clear.
2. Are ministries shared, with active involvement and leadership from lay people in a wide variety of roles and responsibilities?
3. What systems are in place for coping with issues? Are there good policies in place, particularly for protecting children and others with less power. If there are good policies, are they actually upheld?
4. Ask hard questions. Once you’re involved, sooner or later something will concern you, even in the best of congregations. A normal response is to just let it go, but in fact, it’s a great opportunity to assess the true health of the community. Ask the appropriate senior leader your question, but be as kind as you can be (don’t ask it in public, for example) and be prepared to not like the answer you get. Are they defensive or open to your concern? If they have bungled something (and everyone does) do they apologize appropriately? It’s usually painful to get a wrong answer, but it’s important to know first-hand if things are not as they appear to be and get out sooner rather than later. Life is too short. And if your question is really tough and they answer well, it’s solid gold.
Finally, I said active involvement is the easiest way I know of to be a better person. Needless to say this not the same as easy. But the rewards in my experience are frequent and unexpected. They usually aren’t big things, but they come from many directions and are undergirded by the abiding grace and compassion that I believe are at the heart of all faiths.