Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Inter-Church Competition

This past Sunday I was sitting in the choir loft for the first time. Our choir director had finally convinced me to sing with our casual summer choir. I feel horrible for the regular choir member to my left that probably had to struggle to maintain pitch against my untrained voice whenever I tried to sing harmony, but I did have fun. And being in the choir loft did give me a new perspective on some things.

On Sunday, we welcomed 8 new members to our congregation. Two of those new members were returning to our church from another church, across town, that has distinctly different views from most of our congregation on certain controversial topics. As our membership director announced their names and the nature of their membership with us, "returning here from XXX Presbyterian Church," I saw several people look at their neighbor with significant grins.

In many ways, we're in a competition for membership with this and other PCUSA churches in town. Membership transfers seem to a sort of proxy for the perceived "right" position on those controversial topics. If we're gaining membership and they're losing, then we must be right. If they're gaining, then we're doing something wrong.

I think that most people at least try to maintain a healthy Presbyterian "continue the conversation" perspective throughout this competition, but most are also still keeping score.

Obviously, some competition between churches can be healthy. Softball leagues. Volunteer hours. Blood drives. But can a membership competition ever be healthy? Especially when the churches involved have dramatically different views, and are trading members as a result? Is that competitive feeling an un-Christian one?


B-W said...

My default position is to say "no, of course not." Such a member trading war seems detrimental to the greater call to proclaim the kingdom of God to the world.

On the other hand, this is a topic that does merit discussion. Allowing that there are differences between congregations (let alone denominations) on any number of issues and worship styles, we want to affirm whenever a person finds a church in which they feel that they can worship. Although I do not believe that people should switch congregations arbitrarily, I'm not a person who thinks that they should remain in a congregation in which they are unhappy indefinitely.

Also, it occurs to me that, although commingled with this unhealthy "numbers=right" belief, member trading is also a part of the conversation. We learn things from people who've been in the congregations with which we differ.

Anyway, I don't know what's "right" on this matter, so much as I do think this is worth discussing. Thanks for your thoughts.

Stushie said...

Paul, if churches were never competitive, divisive, and disruptive, your namesake would never have had to write all those letters in the New Testament.

As long as we're all in the Kingdom, the fifedoms can march to their own drum...:)

Sarahlynn said...

So, Paul, are you going to be a regular part of the choir now?

We are receiving an influx of members from a couple other local PCUSA churches. Perhaps it's because we've got a new pastor, perhaps it's because we recently FINISHED a new building. Or perhaps it's because the pastor of one local church is said to be "not very pastoral" and the pastor of another church is said to put politics above all else.

At a recent Presbytery meeting, clergy from one local church were so upset with the result of a vote that they stood up and left the meeting . . . before communion!

Our church is not like that. We are a very moderate church, with both liberal and conservative members, but most of us moderates. I think that's appealing to a lot of people. We're a church that's currently able to put mission and worship ahead of internal drama and strife.

I do believe that too much competition between churches can distract us from more important things.

There are also, of course, legitimate grievances. But I don't like relatively casual church hopping any more than I like casual bed hopping. Relationships with our churches have their ups and downs, but I detest the attitudes of those few people who don't get it and tend to make ultimatums like, "Do this my way or we're leaving."

There's one denomination that seems to look for PCUSA churches in which there is unrest then starts a fledgling church nearby with some former members fanning the flames and hoping for schism in the big church to fill their smaller, newer one. That's just ugly.

Of course, if our churches were all healthy, this approach wouldn't work. There will always be discontent. We just need to keep it in perspective.