Pacific Northwest, New England: what ails the churches?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

I was at lunch last week with some friends in Berkshire County (Mass.). There was some conversation about how difficult it is to make friends in New England. I testified that in our 25 years of experience here, in spite of joining in numerous community activities and inviting numerous people for lunch and dinner at my house, I had not made a single local friend outside the church I’ve attended since 1983. The women at lunch, friends from three local churches, are all full-time residents of the Berkshires, whereas I divide my time equally between our two houses–but all agreed that it is very difficult to make friends in this part of the world. People keep to themselves.

Our older daughter lived in Seattle for almost eight years. They worked hard to make friends–they invited people over, they had dinners and parties, they played golf, they joined a church…but in the end they were glad to leave because they had made no real friends. This phenomenon, well known, is called the “Seattle Freeze.” People are friendly on the surface, but they do not seek out connection or develop new relationships. Speight Jenkins, the director of the Seattle Opera, encountered this phenomenon when he moved to Seattle from New York. Apparently this syndrome applies to the Pacific Northwest in general; a young couple whom I know just moved to Vancouver, BC, where they are deeply involved in church life. They are in shock; they say that it does not occur to the members of their church that they might say hello or strike up a conversation with someone.

What’s the common denominator here, between New England and the Pacific Northwest? I believe it offers a partial clue to the precipitously declining membership in these two parts of our country. The Pacific NW was named, until recently, the most unchurched part of our country; just a couple of years ago that unwelcome designation shifted to New England. Can it be, in part, because of this unfriendliness? When church attendance begins to dwindle, I’ve noticed that the remaining members often seem to withdraw into themselves, as if they didn’t want to meet anyone new.

One of my most-viewed blog posts goes into some detail about the impact of friendliness and its opposite in attracting members to church. I describe my own experiences, over decades, of being frozen out of worship services in all parts of the country. Among other things I wrote:

 Most recently, this past spring, Dick and I were amazed by the friendliness and vitality of the American (Protestant) Church in Paris. It made me want to join immediately. In contrast, six years ago I found the American Episcopal Church in Rome (St Paul’s Within the Walls) to be singularly unfriendly even though I attended for three consecutive Sundays. Passing the peace has had no effect on this problem. In American Episcopal churches, I pass the peace to all my neighbors around me in the pews, and as soon as the service is over they immediately turn away from me as if to get away from me as fast as possible.

In my earlier blog on this subject, I make some specific suggestions for tackling this problem. I didn’t discuss one of the most important, which is a goodly number of meals served at church functions, and inviting people to come–not simply with a blanket invitation, but inviting someone specifically and actually escorting them to an event. Of course this is based on the hopeful assumption that churches have dinners. If there were more church lunches and dinners, I’m convinced, more people would come–but putting out a welcome sign on the street is not enough. People have to be escorted in and  introduced to other people. Ditto with coffee hour; I know from personal experience how painful it is to stand around with a coffee cup and not be greeted.

Here is my earlier post:

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