Some thoughts on doing Church better
I have been a minister of the gospel for forty years now. I have been an adult leader in Scouting for even longer. I have noticed a lot of similarities between the Church and Scouting. Both Scouting and the Church use volunteers to work with other people (especially kids), and have similar challenges in recruitment and training and leadership. Leading a Pack, Troop, or Crew is not dissimilar to leading a Sunday School class, youth group, or other ministry. Both BSA and The UMC are large, bureaucratic organizations with lots of institutional assets which nevertheless grapple with long-term decline. And so on. Ever since I began pastoring in 1976, I have taken lessons learned in one environment to apply in the other environment. For instance, I'd never been part of a youth group, so I didn't know a lot about youth ministry back then -- but I knew how to take kids camping from Boy Scouts, so we did a fair amount of camping with that first youth group at Pleasantville, and I have done so ever since in my work with youth.
Anyway, I want to make some comparisons between Scouting and the Church which may shock or offend some people. Let me hasten to say, therefore, that in any contest between the two I will always affirm the Church as of more importance; yea, of eternal importance. And I also want to point out that one could compare the Church with other forms of social organization, such as sports, or corporate culture, or academia, or politics. There are things that each kind of endeavor can learn from the others; I just know Scouting best in comparison to the Church. So here are my three comparisons, letting the chips fall where they may:
By and large, Scouters are more aware of, and understand better, the goals and processes of Scouting than Church members are aware of, and understand, the goals and processes of the Church.
By and large, Scouters are more active and committed in their volunteer work in Scouting than Church members are active and committed in their volunteer work in the Church.
By and large, Scouters are friendlier to other Scouters and more welcoming of new people who show an interest in Scouting than Church members are of new participants in the Church.
Let me now discuss those statements a bit. In the first, I said that Scouters, by and large -- not thinking now in terms of individual cases -- know and understand their goals and processes better than Church folk know theirs. I think this is because Scouting makes a constant effort to try to train their adult leaders. They constantly reiterate their goals. They teach skills. They know that units led by untrained leaders tend to flounder and die, disappointing kids and weakening the whole organization. So they work at it. In contrast, the Church articulates its discipleship goals very haphazardly, and rarely attempts to train anybody for ministry roles. When we do attempt it, we mostly just do pep rally stuff, which doesn't help anybody with their actual tasks. And then we wonder why we can't retain Sunday School teachers, why youth groups founder, why discipleship groups peter out. We don't work at it.
In the second statement, I said that Scouters, by and large, are more active and committed than Church members are to their respective endeavors. Now, there are lazy and feckless Scouters, even as there are dynamic and spirit-filled Church members. But on the whole, most of the Scouters I know are very busy with their Scouting. Particularly if they are the main leader of a unit, they rarely miss a meeting. And they and many others do many other meetings and events in order to keep up with things and provide opportunities for the kids they work with. In contrast to that, even some of our more prominent Church leaders often have track records of attendance far less impressive than they used to be: when I began in ministry, one would have to attend probably forty-plus weeks a year in order to call oneself a "regular attender," and many so qualified; now, many of our church folk who attend barely half the weeks in the year will call themselves "regular attenders." Meanwhile, the Scouters who are attending Council and District and Lodge events in addition to their unit activities stand in stark contrast with many Church members for whom anything happening at some location other than their local congregation is seen as too much of a bother to participate in. And we wonder why newcomers don't see how vibrant and exciting it is to serve Christ here. Well, we don't act vibrant and excited, do we?
In the third statement, I said that Scouters, by and large, are friendlier and more welcoming than Church folk. Now, there are churlish Scouters, as well as Scouters who don't get on with each other. But I could paper my house with thank you certificates from serving in very minor capacities on Scouting events. I have all kinds of patches for things I've gone to, as well as other special recognitions. The Church rarely thanks anybody. And yeah, sometimes when I go to Scouting events, I'll get lost in the crush and feel kind of out of place, but very often there'll be someone there who will light up when he or she sees me and I get a lot of good strokes from people who are genuinely glad that I came to whatever it was. Meanwhile, there are many times when I feel like a ghost among Church folk, or even fellow clergy. What must it be like for new laypersons to try to break into the fellowship ring of a congregation, when we ignore each other so? And we wonder why people don't notice what a friendly, welcoming congregation we are? Well, as Jesus said, if you greet only those who greet you, how are you better than the Gentiles? Even they do that.
Over the years, I have tried to use what I have learned in each venue of ministry to broaden the appeal and deepen the impact of the other. There are things that BSA could learn from the Church, if it would, and sometimes I am the lone voice at Council Executive Board meetings pointing out stuff that nobody else thought of. But there are also things that the Church could learn from Scouting, if it would, and I think we would be the better for it.