There’s a scene in Jurassic Park that I have always loved. The huge, amazing all-knowing computer that controls everything has a safety feature – it counts, every minute, all the dinosaurs in the park to make sure they are all safe and accounted for. The dinosaurs are all female and cannot breed. An intrepid visitor asks them to change the parameters of the “count” to an open-ended search – and lo and behold, the computer suddenly counts hundreds of dinosaurs, that may have all been there for a very long time.
It’s in that moment that the lens changes. The frame of reference shifts, and the (doomed?) guests at the park realize have made a grave error in procedure, one that might affect their very survival.
How is your church counting its “dinosaurs”? Does it strive each week to make sure they are all in their place? Is your parameter set to assume that “successful” means consistent attendance among those who have attended for years, maybe an expected visitor or two now and then that have been brought in by other members?
A few years ago I sought to attend a Quaker regional gathering. I was told there would be no childcare, as the gathering was being held in a place that didn’t have the space for kids. I was told it was a one time situation. The next gathering I was told the same thing, for other reasons. That was the last time I attended that sort of gathering. I have been told since that things have changed – and now they are more intentional about inviting children. I am glad for that.
In a meeting I was exploring attending this past year, first day school only happened on a third Sundays, a day that conflicted often with my daughter’s Quaker retreats. She was free to come most other weeks. When I asked about the conflict, and if it needed to be the third Sunday, I was met with some resistance about trying to “change the meeting”. I was. The resistance seemed to be only from one member, but it was enough for me to seek out another experience. Another member of the meeting suggested I go to another local church (not Quaker) with a more vibrant kids program. Apparently that church gets a lot of families in this situation.
That meeting has since had conversations about changing its policy and scheduling in the fall, to accommodate more families. I’m very glad that is happening. I’ve been told I am welcome and invited back. But after a long year of struggle, and internal conversation, and testing with my support committee, we have found what may be another home. And it’s too new, and we are building trust there, and I’m not willing to go through that process again.
In both of those cases, the overall make-up of the congregation stayed the same. I was the new outsider who wasn’t seen, and now is gone.
How many seekers see an outdated website and don’t even show up at the door? How many new people attend meeting for a few weeks, engage in the flurry of after meeting activity, and don’t get approached in a welcoming way with no pressure? How many people are leaving their kids at home because it’s just easier than asking over and over again for child care or accommodations that work?
Does our “counting” of members include those who might be ready to walk in the door? And those that might have schedules that do not allow them to be a weekly attender? How do you invite people to participate in the wider work of the meeting when they are eager and ready? Is it by participating in committees? Are they at times that can be attended by a wide population of meeting attenders, or do they happen when the members who have been on the committee for years have always met? Is there childcare offered at major meeting events, and business meetings?
Seeing the meeting as an outsider is always hard for those of us on the “inside” But in that case, visitors, even those who might not become members, are a true gift. And we can’t see our own tendencies without help and intentional looking. How does an outsider see your meeting?