Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fraternities and Churches

I've mentioned before, but not often, that I was in a fraternity back in college. It's not something that I planned to do before I began those years. I'm actually not sure how often people say to themselves, "When I go to college, I'm going to join a fraternity/sorority." I just don't think that it happens that way.

I imagine that the reasons I ended up joining a fraternity are pretty common. The very first group of people I met on campus either were members or were part of their female corollary. Two others lived across the hall from me; I remember watching a lot of baseball playoff games in their room the fall of my freshman year. I found them to be friendly and welcoming, and seemed to reach out to me in genuine ways, first as friends and second as frat guys rushing a potential new member. And it was through these relationships that I decided to pledge.

Apparently, times have been more difficult for the guys on campus, if the alumni page on Facebook is any indication. As I read up on the woes of my frat's current membership, it's clear to me and many others that they don't seem to do well at reaching out to others nowadays. A host of reasons for that have been postulated, which I don't think would be kosher to share here. At any rate, the group's numbers have dropped to an alarming low, and the alumni have been brainstorming ways to encourage them to reverse the trend.

I look at my frat's situation, and as a pastor I see some easy parallels to the church. The ones that are worst off are the ones who have a reputation of being not overly friendly, anti-social, insulated. If members can be identified, they may not represent their church in the best light.

This may not even be a conscious thing on the church's part. Like my fraternity, they may know and treasure its own rich history and heritage. "Look at all that we can offer! Why aren't people busting down our doors to be a part of this?" And of course the truth is that no matter how beautiful the building or deep the tradition or wonderful the story, it's the people who make the difference. How will anyone know about the wonderful experience one may have as part of this group if its members aren't excited about it, or talking about it, or representing it well to others, or discerning new ways to tell the group's story?

Even more important than sharing the story is sharing oneself. We're in an age where people don't join things nearly as often just to join them. Pre-existing relationships are increasingly important. They always should have been, but nowadays people join groups not to meet friends but because they were already friends with someone who's part of it. That's why I joined my fraternity: I'd already gotten to know most of the group and liked them as people, and then I also got to know the values and traditions of the group and found that I liked those, too.

The church needs a similar outlook: relationships first, institution second. The second may never even come. But caring about that first is what turns a group inward and causes relationships to suffer.