I sat across from someone I didn’t know at a recent church luncheon that was open to the community. We introduced ourselves. She soon found out I was the pastor. After some conversation she said,
“The churches aren’t as full as they once were, back when I was a kid. Why do you think that is?”
Here is my answer:
Most churches are designed (whether they are aware of it or not) assuming they will self-perpetuate indefinitely: the children of the congregation will grow up to be young adults in the congregation who will eventually take over the leadership, and raise their children in the congregation and continue the cycle. This is not a world we live in anymore. Young adults often go off to school or start their working lives elsewhere. They often do not return or if they do they are in transition. People have fewer children than previous generations did. Families are mobile; moving across the country for jobs away from their home of origin and either don’t stay connected or have a hard time connecting in a new place without the support of parents, grandparents and extended families. Children of divorced parents split their time between parents over weekends in different locations making a 50% potential attendance rate 100% from their perspective.
Many congregations are designed assuming that people are both eager and available to give time and effort. The rise of many denominational churches came in the 1950s and 60s when many families had one parent at home with the children looking for ways to connect and contribute. In many families today single parents are carrying the load for their family or both parents are working. The desire to be involved and participate may be there, but long-term commitments are hard to make and maintain for many.
People are busier than ever. The church once filled a social need that was absent of other activities and organizations years ago. Today, many opportunities abound; and participating in church becomes one more choice among many. The belief that sports and other activities will help with college admissions drives the schedule of many families. In contrast, there does not seem to be many families pushing their children to apply to college based on Sunday School attendance.
Eroding Generational Connections:
People that were marginal in their church participation in previous generations have children that are even more marginal participation, and by the third generation have little or no connection to the church at all. For a growing number of people in society, church is a foreign place. It is a community outside of their everyday experience.
People today mistrust institutions, especially the church. There have been so many scandals that people are looking elsewhere for answers, meaning, purpose and community. “Hypocrisy” is given as a reason many stay away or leave churches every year. People of faith that make headlines in the media seem either bigoted, backward or both, and as people look for something positive to connect with – religion can have a bad name.
Many congregations are closed systems that exist for the sake of their membership, and meeting their needs and expectations; rather than connecting with the outside community and putting faith into action. The church becomes a club that has little impact on how people live their lives or care for the world around them. Questions like: “Who would miss us if we were gone?” Or: “Why bother?” Are left unanswered.
Imploding Systems Will Not Save the Church:
All or some of the above challenges have brought many congregations to the breaking point, where the dynamics of survival overtake the dynamics of sharing life together. Many congregations have and will self-destruct trying to save themselves, rather than teaching how to give yourself away for the sake of others.
I believe all these challenges press upon every community in 21st century America (whatever their relationships to communities of faith might be), and we must come to terms with these realities before we start talking about the quality of our churches and how well we might (or might not) be connecting with our people and the neighbors outside our doors. The economy of our community life has changed. As the church we need to adjust what we are doing and how we are doing it in order to stay connected.
My conversation with my new acquaintance drifted to other topics, so I didn’t tell her what I thought the church could provide as an alternative to the ongoing decline we continue to observe and experience.
But here are a few thoughts I share with you now:
Sense of Urgency:
What would we change in our approach if we assumed WE WERE IT. If we were the only Christians on earth, gathered in the only community called “church” that existed, how might we plan, lead, talk about, train, and serve others because the amazing message of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness and acceptance we have in Jesus would not be known in the world if we didn’t? What might we learn to coordinate differently, when we realize with that same sense of urgency, that there are others, just like us?
What if we stopped running programs and filling empty slots to perpetuate the system, and instead helped each other use and share our specific giftedness as our holy calling? What if we stopped trying to do all things and only be able to do them part way, and instead focused our energies toward a few things we could deliver well? What if we got to know what our people are struggling with, what are neighbors are struggling with, what we as leaders are struggling with, and started the conversation there?
People are busier than ever – and need an oasis. The church needs to be a safe place to “be” as much as a place to “be involved.” We have forgotten Sabbath; how to rest, how to pray, and be a voice for renewal the rest of the week. Gathering for worship invites us first to put the world on hold before we can venture out serve in it. What if we thought about Sunday mornings (and any time we gather corporately) not as the time to cram all of our activities into, but we treated our time together as sanctuary, refreshment and reconnection, so we can be sent back into the world as God’s agents of restoration?
Make Generational Connections:
Studies indicate that parents are the number one factor in the faith lives of their children. the church also occupies one of the few remaining structures in society that feature multiple generations. What if the church nurtured and equipped parents at home, reinforced and supported faith through mentoring across generations, and gave each generation, purpose, focus, and a voice to learn and inspire one another? What if we saw each person as called to ministry (regardless of age) and helped develop opportunities to serve in ministry? What if faith development was not just seen as a class, or a program, or something a few people invested time and energy in but was the center of congregational life and its activities?
Deliver and Gain Trust:
People today mistrust institutions, especially the church. We need to build relationships with others so they can see us as dependable. We cannot do everything. We might not always get things right. What if we took small steps to gain trust and exhibited grace in our dealings with one another, so that people could see what we believe in practice?
We live in multiple locations, with multiple networks of relationships inside and outside our congregational life. What if we thought in terms of those multiple orbits of relationships, rather than just our church rolls when organizing projects, seeking out partnerships, and reaching out to others in our neighborhoods? What if those energies were placed on mobilizing ministry anchored in the community around us, so that whether the people around us were part of the congregation or not, we were seen as a valued part of our communities with specific assets we shared?
Renew/Rebuild Systems Towards Hospitality and Mission:
Part of our self-destruction is doing the same things over and expecting different results. What if we rebuilt our organizations from the bottom up to accomplish the tasks we hope to achieve in service to others? What if we thought of our systems as open, adaptive and fluid? (Think centered-sets; not bounded sets.) What if we considered the stranger, the outsider, the newcomer the seeker, and the “spiritual but not religious” as our allies in helping us discover who we are and who God calls us to be?
I’m under no illusions that implementing how we might answer these questions would be able to recapture the glory days of the church when (at least as we remember it) the pews were full and the days were bright. I do however, believe that spending some time rethinking what we are doing and why we are doing it with intentionality and a heart for others that opens every conversation we have for transformation.