The story of the Prodigal Son pits the wayward prodigal versus his obedient elder brother. The father rejoices with singing and gifts when the lost prodigal returns. The eldest son sulks in jealousy.
Contemporary churches are built to cater and attract the brother of the prodigal. The ones who know the church stories and follow all the rules.
There’s a problem with this approach. It’s barely changed over 500 years.
By design, churches today tend to cater to the “low hanging fruit” of possible attendees (that’s not to be interpreted in the pejorative). That would be existing Christians, with lapsed Christians a distant second. For good reason too. The church is built to succeed in these demographics. Simply reminding lapsed Christians about their faith is a tactic to keep a number of faithful in the pew. That’s why many churches know that in order to maintain numbers, they must offer robust programming for young families. Without it existing Christian families would switch to a different church with adequate programs. It’s also a mechanism to re-attract lapsed Christians who used to attend as a kid, left, and now with kids of their own, look to pass on some kind of religious identity to their children.
What we don’t often find are non-churched families (or singles) finding, or even seeking, the church. Families with no particular felt need are not interested in what the church has to offer–largely a Sunday service and maybe a mid-week gathering. In an already busy culture, taking valuable time on a Sunday to listen to some music and somebody talk for an hour has no bearing or value. Culturally, it doesn’t make sense either. There are effectively no contemporary events that would take a whole family, split them up, and have the adults sit and listen to a lecture. (What does, however, work, is the allure of loving community.)
The church seems overly reliant on operating under the assumptions of Christendom–a culture that’s eroding. It’s not a culture that will disappear tomorrow, but it’s certainly one that has little appeal to the growing contingent of religious “nones”. In fact, the church’s inability to navigate cultural shifts mean they cater to the brother of the prodigal, when culture is now producing the sons and daughters of the prodigal son.
We’re way behind the 8-ball.
I believe there is hope yet, but it will require significant changes in church culture. Namely, a re-orientation away from the importance of the Sunday service, and towards mobilizing the priesthood on mission.