Just Try a Few Things

Shoeizan Ryohoji Temple (松栄山・了法寺)

by Sarai Rice

These are tough times for mature congregations. You know the ones I mean– congregations with “parlors” and pipe organs and portrait galleries of past ministers (and carpets that can’t be spilled on and furniture that can’t be moved and relics that can’t be thrown away). Most of our congregations are like this, even though by now most Christians go to some other kind of congregation or just don’t go.

Many of these mature congregations are in a decline and virtually want to grow, but it’s probably safe to say that most of us who are their members are reluctant pioneers, not quite visionary enough to imagine the next new thing or brave enough to endure the hostility and disappointment of those who cannot change.

It’s possible, though, that we’re making this harder than it needs to be. Maybe we just need to try a few things.

For example, in May 2009, a priest at a Buddhist temple in Japan installed a large welcome sign just inside the temple’s main gate that was intended to foster children’s interest in Buddhism. It featured the kinds of images that are associated with Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animation) Each of the temple’s enshrined deities were portrayed in this cartoon format, with QR codes next to each of the characters that would take visitors to a mobile-friendly website that offered information about them. (For the image, see www.tricycle.com/feat

ure/welcome-ryohoji. As you scroll across the image, different kinds of information will pop up.)

The temple’s sign quickly attracted attention, and subsequently there have been some interesting developments:

  • The grandson of a temple participant established a company that began selling gear emblazoned with the temple characters.
  • Special events were organized on the temple grounds.
  • Theme songs were written and videos released featuring adults, including both the original illustrator of the sign and a famous porn star, dressed up as characters.
  • A bi-weekly broadcast was created for YouTube.
  • Video games featuring the characters now form an integral part of the temple’s institutional identity.

Not surprisingly, some Buddhists have been critical of these departures from Buddhist tradition while others see this as the most recent example of the common practice of using contemporary art forms to attract new followers to an established faith tradition.

I am not advocating the manga Jesus. (I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.) But I do want you to notice where this started–with a sign that was meant to attract the attention of children and make information about the temple and its faith accessible to them directly via their smart phones.

Of course, not all of us have access to clever illustrators, but we do have access to other struggling institutions from which we can learn how to try things–for example, the opera!

My father is a life-long opera buff who spent years working in his office at the university on Saturday afternoons so that he could listen to public radio’s broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances. Love of opera is apparently not, however, an inherited trait, as no one in the family has so far joined him. Nationally, the percentage of the U.S. population who have attended an opera performance is small to begin with and has been in a decline for many years, going from 3.2% in 2002 to 2.1% in 2012. However, in that same period, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s ticket sales were up 15%, subscriptions at the Chicago Opera Theater were up 20%, and two new opera companies were started. So what’s up with opera in Chicago?

In an article last year, Woods Bowman, an economist and subscriber to the Lyric Opera, speculated about the secrets to their success, including:

  • Do whatever it takes to get people in the door. For example, the Lyric Opera includes one Broadway musical in its lineup every season, for which it placates subscribers with more classic tastes by offering the Broadway shows as add-ons not included in the subscription series.
  • Incorporate other art forms whenever possible. The Lyric version of one opera integrated ballet into a party scene, for example.
  • In order to cut through opera’s reputation for foreign languages, complex plots, and sitting a long time in one position, give subscribers opportunities to bring friends to special events where one or more famous artists perform specific songs rather than a whole opera.
  • Get rid of the stuffy image. The Lyric, for example, collaborated with Second City to produce a night of comedy poking fun at opera. Patrons sat on the Lyric’s stage cabaret-style and enjoyed snacks and drinks.
  • Reach out to children by creating special events that are kid-friendly.
  • Offer opportunities at times other than the standard–for example, midweek performances starting at 6:30 or Friday night events for the whole family.

It’s hard not to think of things a church could try in response to such a list.

For example, along the lines of getting people in the door and losing the stuffy image, the church near Boston described by Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette in Real Good Church has an annual Drag Gospel Festival that was the brainchild of a gay man and drag queen in the congregation. Saturday afternoon is always a talent show at a local restaurant-bar, while Sunday morning worship is led by folks in drag and everyone sings gospel music. As she says, “It is not a spoof of real worship, but real worship, with folks belly-laughing as well as crying their eyes out, knowing that the welcome is real and durable.”

Or consider cutting through the church’s reputation for sitting in one place for a long time by inviting everyone to walk the neighborhood rather than sitting still while doing Bible study. It would certainly be aerobic, and it could be a powerful way to hear Jesus’ words while actually meeting Jesus in your neighbors on the street.

Any congregation can try a few things. Just mix what you already have–signs, Bible study, drag queens–with something new–manga and QR codes, walking, talent shows–and see what happens!

My next article, by the way, will be about a process you can use to make “trying a few things” as easy as it sounds.

[box]Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.[/box]