Deer in the Headlights


deerThere is a small wooded area at the edge of my suburban neighborhood that is home to several families of deer. In the last several weeks a drain construction project has encroached upon the edge of the wooded area and the deer have taken to wandering through our subdivision in search of …I’m not sure what.  At any rate, their presence has stirred up quite a reaction among the neighbors.  There are those of us who simply love looking up from our daily work, in awe, to see these gentle creatures roaming among us. We’re hopeful that they’ll stick around and figure out a way to coexist with us in busy suburban life, provided they don’t hurt us or themselves. The gardeners among us are worried. They’re convinced that the deer are going to destroy all of the vegetation that we have taken such care to tend. The animal lovers among us are fussing. They are certain that this does not bode well for the deer that are eventually going to be maimed or killed by the dangers of modern civilization. And the hunters are secretly fantasizing about grabbing the bow stored in the attic and taking out Bambi to demonstrate their prowess. But none of us is actually doing anything about the situation.

As I watch the varied reactions to the deer I am struck by the similarity between this phenomenon and membership assimilation in the large congregations, where demographic differences are concerned. Many large congregations are regional draw institutions, with long established patterns of drawing demographically similar people from large distances. It’s not unusual for people to drive 30-40 minutes to attend a weekend worship experience in a regional church or synagogue.  But the demographics of the communities immediately surrounding the congregation have changed and the people worshipping inside the walls of the congregation don’t look much like the people just outside its walls.

When the people from the surrounding neighborhood wander into our midst (like the deer wandered into my neighborhood) the folks inside of the church don’t quite know what to do. So, like my neighbors, congregation members stand back and watch the visitors with different reactions. Some immediately worry about the well being of the visitor, but don’t know what to do to appropriately tend to their needs.  Some are not really interested in interacting with the demographically different; they just want to stand back and stare in awe and appreciation. Some are most interested in protecting their turf from these different ones who might threaten our carefully tended structures and practices. And some are secretly plotting to figure out how to take the newcomer out, without looking bad in the process.

What is your congregation learning about dealing with the deer in the headlights (the demographically different) that you long to embrace, but can’t quite figure out how to assimilate?

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