While church planners listened, a five-person focus group described life outside the congregation’s doors: A world falling apart.
Families are in disarray, the group said. Parents are refusing, or unable, to do the basic work of parenting, from giving guidance to saying “no.” Instead, they are prepping their children to join a national epidemic of narcissism.
Obesity is rampant, along with obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. Infant mortality is worsening as pregnant girls routinely continue smoking, doing drugs and drinking during pregnancy.
Clueless parents are buying heroin — today’s drug of choice — for their children, so the little ones don’t get beat up by dealers. Parents buy cases of beer for their underage children so they can drink at home, rather than drive drunk. Methamphetamine usage is widespread.
Rising awareness of autism has forced health care professionals to deal with autistic children needing more care than schools and community agencies typically can provide.
Unemployment rates might have stabilized, but that masks a growing population who are unemployable because of criminal records, drug use, or lack of skills.
Elderly residents are dealing with profound loneliness, as well as unavailability of health care. Older citizens are living longer, but because of skyrocketing chronic diseases, their quality of life is lower.
Overall student count is down 20 percent at local schools, but the numbers of special-needs children is increasing. Financial crisis results, as a typical child costs $7,300 to educate and a special needs child costs more than $20,000.
Were these speakers “Cassandras” from some fringe doomsday element? No, these were the local school's superintendent, the county health commissioner, two principals in a family counseling practice, and a longtime family health specialist. These were the front-line folks who deal daily with the nightmare many choose not to see.
Church planners had agreed just to listen and not to interject any comments or questions that might channel the flow of information to safer ground. After two hours, they were overwhelmed.
“We have been living in a bubble,” said one planner.
They had been fretting over minor changes in church life. Elderly members have been filled with anxiety about getting their needs met. Leaders have been wondering whom to blame for a decades-long erosion of membership, attendance, participation, and giving.
The outside focus group changed the air. By simply describing the realities with which they deal every day, they put Sunday morning fussing into perspective. A world broken at its very core demands better of its churches.
Energy devoted to blaming could go to reopening their preschool and helping families get it together. Anxiety among elderly members could move from nattering about minor changes to opening church doors to an elder-care ministry or a respite ministry for families of special needs children.
A long-standing inward focus could turn to networking with other concerned faith and secular communities. With so many “moving pieces,” as one expert put it, it will take the entire “village” to turn the tide.
Worries about money could turn to worries about vulnerable people. Preserving historic facilities could turn to opening church doors seven days a week to needy neighbors.
To their great credit, these church planners not only endured two hours of difficult news, but they allowed it to stir their passions and fire their imaginations.
Ideas and energy poured forth — and they weren’t about survival tactics, but strategies to make a difference in a world falling apart.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)