The Seekers Who Aren't

France, Burgundy, Yonne, Vézelay, Basiica St Mary Magdalene, interior,  UNESCO World Heritage
France, Burgundy, Yonne, Vézelay, Basiica St Mary Magdalene, interior, UNESCO World Heritage

Having spent two decades on church staffs and thus in conversations with other pastors, I've heard it declared many times that there are hoards of seekers out there whom we have to attract to our Sunday worship services. Here's how the story goes: these out-of-church seekers feel a deep longing for something bigger that gnaws at them, and they're wondering where they need to head to find answers to the questions that course through their hearts. What they really need to is to worship God and that particularly means coming to our Sunday worship services. 2016-01-14-1452813118-7744134-emptychurch.jpg

In January last year, I moved from work as a pastor into university teaching and writing. Thus, I'm on the other side of the pulpit. From time to time, I recall the type of conversation I heard within the church offices and conference rooms. Now that I'm outside, the conversation sounds stunningly different. I don't find that many seekers. Instead, those outside houses of worship don't seem to be spending Sunday mornings thinking "What's happening in church today?"

Sometimes church leaders find comfort by asserting--despite signs to the contrary, like the shrinking numbers in U. S. churches--that we're really making progress. As proof we offer isolated anecdotes of those who were searching and found our churches. The statistics, however, tell an alternative story. Take, for example, a 2012 Pew Research Center poll which discovered that 88% of the United States who describe their religion as "nothing in particular" answer "no" to the question, "Are you looking for a religion that would be right for you?" They're just fine watching the NFL, shopping at the mall, heading to Sunday brunch, or walking in the park with their dogs. And though I still attend Sunday worship "religiously," I do have more time to spend on Sundays watching what those outside church buildings are doing. (It's actually become something of a favorite hobby.) And my observations mirror what Pew pronounced.

Not content with others' statistics--even when they arrive from impressive organizations like the Pew Research Center--I decided to conduct one-hour interviews on spirituality with my Chico State students and similarly situated emerging adults. Do you know what I found? Most out-of-church are reasonably happy with their spiritual state. Yes, some offered this, "If others want to believe, more power to them," but that comment had a clear subtheme: those outside churches didn't feel the need to believe themselves. Yes, there are indeed seekers, a minority of whom are looking to the church for answers, but many don't think walking through the doors of a sanctuary will lead them to answers. "My concern about religious leaders is that they'd be biased," one student offered. In the end, Pew and Cootsona came to remarkably similar findings.

Here's the hardest part--which, in fact, pains me to write--even when I found myself in those discussions with congregational leaders, I couldn't help but sense an overconfidence which goes something like this, "You have questions. We answers." But maybe we haven't listened hard enough. Maybe we're simply hearing ourselves speak.

There may be a better way. And I might even offer some ideas in future blog posts. I'm cautious, though, of moving too quickly to the answer before we take in the severity of the question.