That’s the title of a recent book written by Joani and Thom Schultz. The title shouldn’t shock many of us anymore. There is a lot of evidence for its assertion. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, less than 20 percent are actually in church. In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding other things to do and places to be on weekends. We also know that somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors every year. Some researchers put that estimate higher, between 8,000 and 10,000 churches closing.
The “Why” in the title is a question with a variety of answers. We know there are a number of factors involved: changes in the way people regard Sunday services, demographic changes, different ways we now view volunteering, competition on weekends, fewer young families with children, and more. Some people feel spiritual but no longer find institutional church meaningful. Some don’t want to be in a place where they feel judged for who they are or what they believe. Some are not certain and won’t commit till they have had more time to consider. Others are simply not interested.
So inviting people to come to a church on Sunday morning when that’s one of the last places they want to be might not always be an effective means of outreach. There are other ways, however, we can use to invite people into meaningful spiritual community that are not focused on Sunday morning.
A number of faith communities from different traditions are experimenting with spiritual Conversation Cafes. One of the best known of these Cafes is “Lifetree Café.” These 60-90 minute weekly Cafes focus on guided dialogue on a wide variety of topics in an intentionally welcoming, open, “non-churchy” atmosphere. They are often held in coffee shops or tavern party rooms or libraries or other non-church spaces to eliminate the ‘stigma’ of being inside a church building. Participants are invited from the sponsoring church and through Facebook and Meet Up and personal friend-to-friend invitation.
These Cafes are a little like small group ministry, but there is no expectation that the same people will show up each week. Instead, each Café begins with a short introductory exercise that assume people do not always know each other – yet. Then the following program is designed to lead to deeper levels of discussion and relationship building, moving eventually into some form of spiritual question.
North UU Congregation in Lewis Center OH has been experimenting these past two months with the Café format and is using Lifetree Café curriculum (sometimes with small edits to maintain a general UU orientation.) People who have experienced these North UU Cafes have found the chance to meet and engage in dialogue with non-church people meaningful and feedback has been supportive. But participation has varied widely depending the topic. The established curricular topics are very general and, in light of the major social issues facing us today, some topics have seemed relatively inconsequential.
Consequently, the North UU Café volunteer team has decided to create its own conversation café curriculum beginning March 2017. They have been discussing the use of topics that are more immediately relevant to current social and political developments, with the expectation that these may be more inviting to both congregational members and non-members. But the Conversation Cafe dialogue format is something they want to keep and cultivate and expand.
This experiment in outreach is still in development and it will be evaluated continuously as the team moves to create new curricular topics. The experiment has already highlighted the fact that Sunday morning in a church building is not the only time and place where meaningful spiritual community can be created.