So I’ve joined the private golf club close to our home. (Look, they have a clergy discount that’s unbelievable.) The course is beautiful, it’s a great place to unwind, and it’s actually providing some valuable insights into my work in the Church.
In recent years, the annual number of golf rounds played in the United States has been in slow decline. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The average Sunday attendance across the Episcopal Church has also been declining. Now that I’m in both worlds, I’ve made some interesting observations with some implications for potential growth for both the game of golf and the Church.
1. Like golf, the Episcopal Church was once the realm of the elitists
You may not like hearing that, but it’s true. In the last half of the twentieth century, passionate golfers joined private clubs in increasingly wealthy suburbs where they could be separated from the rest of society. They had disposable money to spend on what is an expensive game (clothes, clubs, fees, etc.).
The Episcopal Church, too, once held sway over the elites of our country. More U.S. Presidents have been Episcopalians than any other denomination. Just consider where Episcopal churches were built – in the nicest neighborhoods or near the financial institutions of the day.
2. We have a young people problem
Look, I get it, I’m young. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve showed up for a meeting in my collar and the first thing out of the other person’s mouth is, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be so young.” Why, is that because I wear a sport coat and can manage a calendar? You’ll also hear this in churches all the time: “Where are all the young people?”
I really didn’t expect to hear precisely the same comments when I joined the golf club. On my first day there, one of the guys in the men’s card room (which is a whole other can of worms) said, “It’s great to see young guys joining the club!” The golf pro at the club started calling me Mr. Abbott the second time I was there. I said, “how in the world did you remember my name?” “Well,” he said, “you’re probably our youngest member.”
3. “Members Only”
A giant granite signs guards the main entrance of the golf club. In those imposing letters it says, “Willow Creek Golf Club – Members Only.” It’s hard to imagine a better way to discourage people from visiting than by telling them they’re not welcome.
We do the same thing in the Church. We are all focused on whether you’re confirmed or baptized; what parish has your official letter; if you’re licensed to serve communion or say Morning Prayer. Of course, training and education are crucial to the Christian life, but there is nothing that says “Members Only” than when you walk into an Episcopal church and everybody else is fluidly juggling two books and a worship bulletin while you’re just struggling to understand when to kneel, sit, and stand.
So what can we do about it?
First of all, instead of reaching out to people on the fringes, we need to incorporate them. Food drives, charitable outreach, and those ministries are fantastic. But we need to work on incorporating the poor into the life of our parishes rather than treating them as the recipients of our charity.
This goes for golf too, because there is an obvious racial divide between the guy who serves food in the card room and the guys who runs the pro shop.
Second, the Church needs to stop saying we need young people. God is going to call whoever God is going to call. Welcome, celebrate, and joyfully partner with anybody that walks in your Church who is seeking the Lord Jesus.
Golf needs to work on incorporating families and women into the game. My club is doing a great job of hosting rounds and half days just for families where everybody gets to tee up at the “Family Tees” about halfway down the fairway.
Finally, we have to always remember what Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said: “The Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The Church is not about us getting to know each other, the Church is about knowing Christ and making Christ known.
All golf courses need to be dedicated to “evangelism.” That means inviting and encouraging non-golfers to come and try the game. Yes, that might be aggravating for avid golfers who can’t play on certain days or who have to watch some hackers, but if we truly love the game, then it’s worth the sacrifice. Sound familiar?