I can’t remember exactly when the name “The Church of Yes And…” came to me, but I know why it did. As a Pastor who has studied Improv, I got tired of constantly hearing “no” to new ideas and approaches in church life. If only, I thought. If only church leaders (like me) could lead our fellow Christians to a path of saying “Yes” to more things—especially new ideas and new people. And so I began to pray about how I could create this new and better reality.
But a funny thing happened on the way to improving other people. I began to see that I needed to start with me.
I’m one of the church people who says no. I say it a lot. I say it with good intentions, but I guess we all know what road is paved with good intentions. (Spoiler alert: It’s the road to hell.)
In a job interview to become a church Pastor, a search committee member once asked me about her church’s long list of inactive members—people who had not donated money or darkened the doorstep of the church for years, but still wanted to be considered church members. “How can we make them come back, help us and give money?” She asked. Yes, she actually used the phrase, “Make them.”
I gave her an honest answer, one that very likely cost me that job. “You can’t,” I answered. Then, of course, I qualified my answer, but it was too late. From her point of view, I gave the wrong answer, even if logic says that of course I was technically correct—in a free country you cannot “make” free individuals actively participate in a religious community against their will.
But in so answering, I abandoned the principle behind the idea of The Church of Yes And... “Yes, and…” is shorthand for the real cornerstone behind improvising, both on stage and in the real world. That cornerstone is, “Accept and build.”
Accept. And Build.
When I said, “You can’t,” I failed to accept. I failed to accept her and her ideas. I failed to accept her feelings, and all of the hard work and heartache behind her feelings.
Here’s what I should have said:
Who are these people? How did they participate in the congregation? When did they stop? Why do you believe they stopped? What relationships do members of the church have with these folks now?
Now, as an educated clergy person, I know a lot of statistics about why people have stopped coming to church. The short answer is, mostly, “Because they can.” It has become increasingly socially acceptable to not participate in church, or to reject religion completely as a waste of time or even a social evil.
But people don’t come to church looking for a class in statistics. And they don’t want a Pastor who attempts to salve wounds of the heart with math equations.
The way to get this woman, and others like her, to move beyond nostalgia for the people who used to fill the pews of their churches is to accept the depth of this loss for them, to give it weight and dignity. This may feel like a waste of energy to those of us who did not live through it, but it is the opposite. It is necessary, and good. Only after we have helped those left behind in a diminished congregation to move beyond the grief of the big changes they have suffered through in the past several decades can we hope to build something new.
When I stand in a pulpit for the first time and see a few anxious, mainly aging faces looking back at me, I see the space as mostly empty. In contrast, the long-time members of the church perceive the ghostly presence of the people who used to fill the pews.
Some of them have died.
Some are too elderly and feeble to attend regularly.
Some of them have moved away.
Some left in anger or frustration over a church conflict.
Some left in sorrow because they felt the Pastor and/or their fellow congregants did not care about their struggles and pain.
Some left in boredom after the church failed to minister to their intellect.
Some left feeling empty because the church did not minister to their spiritual needs.
Some left feeling misunderstood and even persecuted because the church did not accept who they were or how they lived.
Some are there in body only, because their spirit has grown feeble.
Empty churches, it turns out, are not really empty. It takes imagination to see these churches as their members see them. It takes skill to help them to see the church as you see it, to grieve the changes for a season and then to collaborate with them to fashion a vision and re-create the church into a sustainable community poised to move into an active future.
Accepting people where they are can be challenging. Supporting people in the midst of a grieving process takes energy and imagination. Grieving takes hard work.