The other day I was eating breakfast with one of my parishioners at the same place that I have had breakfast almost every week for over 10 years. There has been remarkably little turnover in staff, so the folks working there know us, and we simply wave when we walk in and go to our usual seat. Sometimes our server simply brings us our breakfast, without asking what we want. I guess it is best to not want anything different! I have been asked by staff there what I do, and have told them that I am the priest at the Episcopal Church in town, have given the name of the parish, told them the location. But this week, while we were discussing the challenges of the Church today, I asked our server “have you ever heard of the Episcopal Church?” And she looked as me blankly, asked “hear of what?” and then said “nope, never heard of it.” This after over 10 years of bringing us breakfast with me either in clericals or a shirt with our logo on it. This after being told several times I am the priest at the Episcopal Church. What in the world is going on here?
How have they never heard of us?! It clearly is not about simply telling someone what I do for a living, or that I am a priest, or inviting them to come experience the Episcopal Church. I don’t think it is not about having better advertising – we have spent the money for advertising. I did ask her about other churches, she had heard of the large Evangelical churches, and at least knew the names “Presbyterian,” “Methodist,” and “Baptist.” Even with those churches however she only had a vague idea of where a couple of them were. Basically, the churches in this town simply are not in her world. She doesn’t attend worship and she doesn’t need the services we provide. All of our “mission and ministry” to the community (and we do lots!) is unseen by her.
I suspect that our server is more typical than I would want of the people in this Valley. Pastors here extrapolate numbers and think that we have about 10% of the population in our pews on any given Sunday. We are constantly told that we need to go out and work in the community – “find what God is already up to in your town and serve God there.” And this is in fact important to hear, but the reality is that many people still will not “hear of us” because they are simply not listening. There are many people today (and I expect this is true of most times as well!) who find what the Church offers to completely irrelevant to their daily life.
So what might we do – perhaps we might start by recognizing that no matter what we do, some people will have “never heard of us.” Perhaps we need to simply be faithful, act in love, be intentional about looking for and serving the God already active in the world, be ready to give the reason for our hope (Christ!) be a little less reserved when it comes to mentioning our faith, and then let God handle the rest. The salvation of souls is not my business – that work is God’s. At the same time, showing the world that the Church is relevant, that is my business, so if the majority of the people living here don’t think Church is important – there is still a whole lot of work to do.