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Sunday mornings in need of repair

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Sunday mornings are broken.

That was the title of an article by Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest and church consultant in New York.

In the article, Ehrich reflected on how decline in attendance at worship services is affecting clergy today.

"Leading Sunday worship -- the thing they know how to do, were trained to do and want earnestly to do better -- simply isn't as important as it used to be, and it isn't where they need to be devoting so much time," he wrote.

"Sunday worship isn't growing churches any longer. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, kids' sports and shopping."

For many Christians today, Ehrich noted, Sunday mornings are no longer where it's at when it comes to being faithful. They are more interested in small-group gatherings or in community-service projects. And if they need theological information or inspiration, they can find it online.

"Sunday worship should be part of the mix and it should be done well," Ehrich adds. "The problem, however, is that it isn't working."

Ehrich isn't the only one thinking about challenges facing religious leaders today.

In a blog post titled Cultural trends church leaders can't ignore (but might), Ontario pastor Carey Nieuwhof reflected on the changes impacting religious groups today.

The first trend he identified is "online as the new default."

Says Nieuwhof: "You used to have to go to church to hear a message or music, or get the cassette or CD. Now you just need a phone. Every attender can (and often will) listen to any communicator, band or concert they want."

Then there's the matter of sermons. Congregations are "Googling you while you're speaking," he wrote, noting they no longer have to only listen to what the preacher is saying.

Dialogue is another trend, he says.

"People want to talk, not just listen," he says. "What scalable, meaningful venues do you have for people to go to online and in-house for real conversation?"

People today also want more hands-on involvement.

"People aren't waiting for someone to change the world; they'll just do it. From charity runs to starting non-profits from home, the next generation not only believes they can have a global impact, many are having it."

Writing for the Alban Institute, Rabbi Hayim Herring also noted many religious organizations are experiencing changes, including synagogues.

Trends he sees include how people are moving away from an age of organizations toward the age of networks, from credentialled professionals toward avocational experts, from hierarchical control toward individual autonomy, from exclusivity toward inclusivity and from monopolization of knowledge toward democratization of knowledge.

Each of these trends has "generated profound, exponential change, shaking the very foundations of organizations," he writes.

Although these changes are the result of new technologies, they don't "merely raise technological issues," he says. "They raise essential questions about the nature of congregational leadership, structure, and purpose."

The bottom line is that the changes affecting so many aspects of society are impacting religious organizations, too. But what to do?

Ehrich has three suggestions. First, clergy need to use today's tools to reach people today -- especially online technologies.

Second, they need to "proclaim fresh messages that don't reinforce negative perceptions of religion as judgmental, harsh, condescending, overly concerned with institution."

Third, churches should "stand where Jesus stood: on the margins, in solidarity with people, speaking truth to power, risking everything to declare hope and healing. Such a faith experience would transform lives and heal a broken world."

For Nieuwhof, it's a matter of adopting new approaches "without losing who you are in the process. Leaders who are willing to reconsider the methods to preserve the mission are usually the ones who succeed long-term."

Herring believes religious groups need to accept that they are facing a need for "significant reformation." Leaders, he says, need to be ready to remake their institutions and organizations in order to "remain relevant" to people today.

In the Christian tradition, "Tell me the old, old story" is the title of a well-known hymn. Today, the old, old stories of the world's religions may need to be told in some very new ways.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 D15

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