By Rev. John Zehring
A candidate for pastoral ministry told the committee which was examining her that she defined worship as seeking an encounter with the Divine. The role of the pastor, she offered, was to lead worshippers into an encounter with the Divine. Ever since, I have adopted that definition of worship and of the pastor’s role. I know there are many reasons people attend or belong to churches, but imagine the primary purpose of coming to church to be no less than to seek an encounter with the Divine. That places the Spiritual front and center in the life of a community of faith.
When I have been invited to help craft a mission statement for congregations, I have generally envisioned the primary mission of the church to be a center for spiritual renewal, an academy for teaching and learning about our faith and how it applies to our daily life, a boot camp for training advocates for justice and faith, and a springboard for service to God and to God’s children. There are many other statements that could be added, but again, this mission statement places the Spiritual as the primary endeavor of the church and its members.
In this age of Spiritual-but-not-religious – people who are not participants in a community of faith – the Spiritual continues to invade the soul. A spiritual experience might arise from beholding the wonders and beauty of God’s creation; from a time of personal need; from an encounter with a work of music, art, poetry, literature, or other creative expression; from conversations with others; or simply popping up in the soul for no apparent reason. It does not necessarily come on Sunday mornings at church. And yet, even to those who do not frequent the pews, the Spirit of God stimulates, inspires, confronts, challenges, reassures, comforts, or stirs a closer walk with God.
Now, suppose a person is seeking a closer encounter with the Divine. Suppose further that they might guess that a church could be the place where they might find a deeper spiritual experience. And so, they go online to search for the websites of churches. Will those church websites entice them with the possibility of an encounter with the Divine? Will the church websites promote themselves as centers for spiritual renewal, where the seeker can pursue their quest for a deepening quest to engage the Spiritual? Will the websites call them out of their comfort zone to labor for God’s justice for God’s children? Probably not even close.
So, as in informal, non-scientific examination, I searched for church websites pretending to be a person seeking a deeper experience with the Spiritual. An encounter with the Divine? That’s what I was looking for from a website. I might also guess that a church website searcher is not simply seeking a self-centered spiritual high, but recognizes that the Divine also calls us out of ourselves to do something for others. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” The searcher is not so much interested in a church’s history, social activities, pastor’s personality, or fundraising projects, but wants to know about the church “What are you doing for others?”
Primarily, I examined sites of congregations where I have pastored, belonged, attended, or from churches served by friends or colleagues. Here is what I saw:
At an affluent, large congregation near a city, the first, second, and third thing website viewers witness is a large color photo of the pastor. It seems all about her, not so different than what you’d find for a personality-driven televangelist. The site promises a Disneyland of options for everything from a quilters group, multiple musical groups, a theater presentation, service opportunities, an artist-in-residence, cemetery information, yoga, and a theology discussion group meeting at a bar called “Theology on Tap.” The impression: this seems to be a community center with activities for every taste, with the religious part centered upon the pastor. Meeting belongingness needs appears to supersede meeting spiritual needs. I learned from marketing consultants that the best websites should be “you-centered” rather than “us-centered.” This site is about us, not you.
At a medium-sized rural church with a well-educated congregation, the home page lists the times of service, nursery availability, and the mission statement. There is a tab for “Spiritual Growth and Practices,” which sounds exactly what a searcher would be looking for, but it turns out to be all about the church’s communion and baptism practices. There is a tab for Christian Education programs, but all for children. If an adult were seeking to engage in a search for the Spiritual, there is nothing here.
At a small American Baptist Church near a state capitol, there is no website, but instead a Facebook page. If a person seeking an encounter with the Divine hit upon this church website, here is the message they would see from the pastor: “Please keep our church in prayer, to increase in numbers, our church is in peril for its future. If you love the First Baptist church of ourtown, you need to come out and attend our church. If you consider yourself a member of the First Baptist Church of ourtown, you need to start attending, before we no longer are here.” Hardly an enticing invitation to search for the Spiritual there.
At a university church across the street from a state university, the home screen of the website opens with this blaring banner: “We’re glad you’re here!” Right on. That is welcoming. Next comes the welcome: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life's journey, you are welcome here.” Ah, already feeling the warm welcome. This website is “you-centered” and promises to engage participants with the Spiritual.
An upper-middle class congregation starts with beautiful photos of children engaged in the worship service, photos which are years old. Attend and you discover that there are no children there anymore. News and Announcements on the homepage list four-month-old announcements which are no longer relevant. Times about worship services are listed but when the viewer clicks “more information,” nothing appears. Tabs list excellent information about visiting, including where to park and how to enter, learning about the congregation’s beliefs, and videos of recent sermons. It is a decent but dated website and I know this congregation to be a healthy, vital, spiritually-centered congregation, but that does not fully emerge from their website.
There is a congregation in a resort area which I pass. It is a pioneer in the Open and Affirming (ONA) movement, historically welcoming and affirming those in the LGBTQ community. Whenever I drive by, there are signs out front about pies for sale. Their website profiles a memorial service for a member who died recently, talks about themselves as an ONA church and a “Just-Peace church,” and offers information about their search for a new pastor. A searcher for the Spiritual would find a tab on the website for a program called “Soul Rest,” which might have some relevance for those seeking an encounter with the Divine, but you have to dig deep into the site to find it and see if it might apply.
Seeking an encounter with the Divine? Searching for a deeper connection to the Spiritual? Hoping to be inspired to translate your faith into work for God’s justice? See for yourself. Go to church websites of congregations you know to see if they lead you into a deeper walk with God. A few come close, but most miss by a mile. For those in church leadership, check your church’s website and rake it over the coals to make sure it is consistent with your congregation’s mission and would meet the needs for those more interested in spiritual growth than church suppers and yard sales. For those who are Spiritual-but-not-religious and seeking an encounter with the Divine, God bless you and guide you in your search. Should you visit a church, hold their feet to the fire and examine them on how well they choose to lead worshippers into the presence of the Divine.
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”