In my search for a church home during graduate school, I attended over ten churches in two years, each with their own different style of communication. Some handed out a tan, tri-fold piece of paper by which I could follow along, nose down, during the service. Others projected announcements on movie screens that required thick-rimmed glasses to read. My favorite bulletin was at an Anglican church who footnoted each part of the service so as to explain its theological significance. It was a divinity nerd’s dream.
It’s the second week of the “Trust Me” series, and I’m talking about the micro-resolutions church leaders can make to foster trust with Millennials. This week’s topic? The little things that can take our bulletins from information to transformation.
I realize the word “bulletin” might sound a little outdated to my Millennial peers reading this, many of whom aren’t fond of the idea of going to church but instead are finding alternative ways of being the church. Personally, I’m a fan of both. But regardless of in what form of church we find ourselves, it’s how our church communicates the invitation to belong – in worship, mission, and community – that shapes whether we’re just informing members or growing disciples.
My time in graduate school was a fascinating study in belonging as I moved from church to church, paying attention to the way in which someone new to each place, each denomination might react to the words being said. Or not being said. For instance, I was surprised by the number of congregations that didn’t print the Lord’s Prayer for us to read, especially since it was so easy to be the lone “trespassers” in a chorus of “debtors.” (Cue doe-eyed sympathy from my pew mates.) Equally missing were the brief congregational responses that often followed the reading of Scripture; instead they came out of strangers’ mouths by memory. If someone like me who grew up in the church felt out of place and hesitant to return, I imagined someone new to the faith would feel even more, well, exposed.
Even if we’re not new to the faith, it’s likely that at some point in our lives, we’ll find ourselves in a church culture with which we’re unfamiliar. In fact, I’d say it’s a sign of our spiritual health and commitment to unity if we do. Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute describes the impact of our shifting allegiances for church leaders:
I think the days of standing in the pulpit looking out in the pews in a Presbyterian church or a Methodist church and thinking most of these people in here are cradle-to-grave are gone. More than three in 10 Americans are switching their religious affiliation at least once — and I don’t just mean Methodist to Presbyterian. I mean Catholic to mainline Protestant or Muslim to Buddhist. They’re big switches, not just denominational trades.Last week, I wrote about how it’s no longer realistic for churches to assume that members of the same family have the same last name. Likewise, it’s no longer realistic for churches to assume that the people sitting in our pews are familiar with our denomination – or Christianity at all. The shift in religious affiliation can be a gift to the church if we let it move us from communication complacency to communication hospitality.
This means we have to be a little more intentional with our words than we’re used to. We might choose to say what denomination we’re affiliated with on the bulletin and how that commitment pops up during worship. We might choose to say what version of the Bible we read from here and why. We might choose to say who exactly “Beth” is and how exactly to contact her with contributions for the canned food drive. We might even say who to contact, too, if we need help processing the sermon.
Perhaps it’s a result of growing up Catholic that I favor bulletins that are straightforward, predictable, and have a Spanish counterpart. Without a discernible structure for belonging, newcomers and old waste precious energy trying to read the culture instead of entering the spirit of worship. We end up losing ourselves in the bulletin rather than losing ourselves to each other.
Micro-Resolution #2: Treat me like a stranger. Challenge a group of 3-5 church leaders to attend each of your church gatherings through the eyes of a “stranger:” a teenager, a new mom, a person with a disability, an immigrant, a non-Christian. What questions come up for you? Where do you get tripped up? Now return to your bulletin and see where there’s room for more hospitality, i.e. a different language translation, a note about hearing aids, an explanation of theology, etc.
Although Jesus’s communication style was maddening at times (just like his church!), his example was clear: to favor the stranger is to find favor with God.
Erin S. Lane is author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe and co-editor of Talking Taboo. Confirmed Catholic, raised Charismatic, and married to a Methodist, she facilitates retreats for clergy and congregational leaders through the Center for Courage & Renewal. To find more of her writing, visit www.holyhellions.com.