How Badly Do We Really Want It?

Following a recent conversation about “growing the church,” I realized that the church we want to grow bears a striking resemblance to the church we already have… and to the church model made popular by the conservative young_prosevangelical movement of the late 20th century.  A dozen different entrepreneurial pastors described their plans and strategies to reach new, young, upwardly mobile middle class Americans.  Generally described as “the unchurched,” these proto-church-members are nothing more than the next generation of what we’ve always been.

In the research I did while employed by the General Board of Discipleship, I identified five predominantly unserved segments of our modern American culture with no ongoing relationship to organized religion.  Each of the five seeks relationship with God, but finds the current church situation either unreceptive or hostile.  The problem with any — and all — of the five groups is that to reach them, the church would need to make radical and sweeping changes. 

Group number one is huge, but its primary drawback is that it has very little to contribute to our current organizational structure.  Economically poor, less educated, often relegated to the fringes of society, and lacking skills or social graces, an estimated 30,000,000  Americans call themselves “Christian” but have no church affiliation.  The number one reason?  Churches don’t want them.  Oh, certainly, many of our churches provide ministry to such people, but a slim minority are in vital ministry with them. A few other denominations do a better job than The United Methodist Church reaching, receiving, and relating to those on the lower rungs of our societal ladder, but as interview after interview revealed, no one seems to really want the poorest and least privileged in our mainline churches.

The second group exists at the other end of the economic and educational spectrum — those with the highest levels of education and a more than comfortable standard of living.  The problem here is that a pervasive anti-intellectualism prevails within this country and within mainline Christianity.  Wanting to apply the keenest standards of critical thinking to the basic tenets of religion, such people are not viewed as an asset, but a threat.  As a higher percentage of the U.S. population attains higher levels of education, fewer people feel welcome in an anti-intellectual church.

Next comes the cynical center of the American population — those who are not willing to accept standard Christianity wholesale, but want a deeply practical and undemanding faith.  Questioning anything, wanting to explore everything, this segment of our society has little tolerance for rules and regulations and they demand openness and flexibility.  Quoting the Buddha and Vivekananda as freely as Jesus or Paul, many of these folks make mainliners uncomfortable, and just as many see no reason to connect with any institution that won’t accept them as they are.

10001062-mdIn the same general place as number three, group number four is a worldly lot who believe that much that organized religion views as “immoral or sinful” is hopelessly out-of-date and indefensible.  As one told me, “I smoke marijuana, I drink Stoli, I am in a sexual relationship with my girlfriend, AND I believe God loves me.  I study the Bible weekly with my friends, I pray every morning and every night, I spend every Friday night working at the mission, AND I have yet to find a church that doesn’t judge me and make me feel like a ton of crap.”  Most churches are marginally open to accepting such people, as long as they are willing to change completely so that they might fit in.

The final segment — also numbering in the millions in our culture — are the broken, discarded, institutionalized, ostracized, and rejected.  Many of them are pierced, tattooed, scarred, and jaded.  The modern equivalent of the lost, the last, and the least that Jesus himself came to save, a remarkably small number of such people are targeted by United Methodism as “potential members.”  These people are risky, scary, sometimes dangerous, often strange, and among the most needy in our world.

These five groups are not exceptional.  In fact, taken together, they may comprise over one-third of our current population.  While there is some overlap, an estimate of close to 70 million is not out of line.  One-in-four hundred claims no belief/atheism, so we shouldn’t expect 175,000 of them to be open to an authentic appeal from the Christian church, but for the remaining 69,825,000, all we need ask is, “do we really want these children of God in our churches?”

If the answer is “yes,” we will need to change — drastically.  If we have no desire to change, then we need to quit whining about losing members.  Our next new members are out there — but they are not like us.  They are a 21st century challenge to an 18th century mindset, and a 2,000 year old faith.  Can we find ways to bridge these gaps without compromising our theology and Biblical integrity?  Can we find ways to operate by grace rather than by laws written for a premodern and primitive people?  Can we be guided by God’s Holy Spirit to reach the unreachable, to forgive the unforgivable, and to love the unlovable?

Well, that’s enough rant for me.  I talked to hundreds of people over the past five years who would love to be a part of the church, but cannot find any church that will have them.  If we want to grow, we have to ask honestly, how badly do we really want it?  There are millions of people who would join us if we would ask them.  The trouble is, no one’s asking.

12 replies

  1. You always write such interesting things! I agree, we’re not doing such a “new” thing. I have a slightly different view, however. I think that some of the “new” things are really more along the lines of getting back to our Methodist roots. I would also say, that this pre-dates the late 20th century. Having grown up Methodist, I personally heard stories and read church history from my “home” church about things that they did which are very similar to some of the things that are being tried now. They worked. I remember being able to ask some really hard questions and people didn’t shy away from at least trying to express an opinion or give me an answer. Are things that really could be classified as “old school” such a bad thing? Does the possibility exist that some of those “standards” might be worth pulling out and dusting off again because they worked? Must everything be thrown out the window simply because this is a new generation?

    Love your blog! Keep up the good work!

    • Trudy, I don’t believe we abandon the tradition, but that we critically analyze what of the tradition to keep and what to modify. I intentionally raise the question about being relevant without compromising our theology or scriptural integrity because I believe there is universal and eternal truth and wisdom contained in our tradition. What I also believe is that we have created much of our tradition as an excuse to insulate and isolate ourselves from people who make us too uncomfortable.

      I think this is a “both/and” issue — we need to continue doing what we have done well for centuries, but we must also not let our history be a millstone around our necks, making us unable or unwilling to serve those at the margins of our society. A gospel that is not big enough to include all of God’s children fails to truly be “good news.”

  2. I think this is where the denomination can and should plug in and cultivate second career pastors…folks from their early 30’s to early 50’s who know how to get out of the office, network and create relationships with the sections of the population you’ve mentioned above…I think that we are failing in this area – thinking that 2nd career folks can and should fit the mold and structures that have always been. As one of these 2nd career folks I am at times very frustrated…sigh…

    • I couldn’t agree more. We keep taking all different kinds of “pegs” and pound them into the same, narrow, square “holes.”

  3. High five to deborah from another second career pastor, currently bi-vocational.

    Dan, my constant question. What does this look like in practice?

    Say you pastored a middle-sized church near the young pot-smoking man who sees little connection between these behaviors and his spiritual life. How would you talk to him – and more important – what ways would you try to get the church to change to open a door to him?

    • My answer — purely personal — is that I will work to connect with the young man and others like him where he is, and that means I will not invite him into the traditional setting, but will expand the setting to meet the person. If our church buildings don’t allow beer, I will meet to pray with people in bars (and have…), if someone is doing drugs, illegal or otherwise, I will make opportunities to be in conversation with them — but much more about beliefs than behaviors. It really doesn’t much matter what my sentiments are about where people are in their personal maturity. My only access to them depends on my providing both a non-anxious and non-judgmental presence. The pierced, tatted, spiky-haired biker may love Jesus as much as any sweet blue-haired lady in a church pew, but we will never know until we talk to them. In every church I have served, I have pastored the congregation to which I was appoiinted, but I also pastored smaller communities in welfare hotels, prisons, bars, and community centers. Were they “the church?” In my view, yes. In the view of my conferences, no. My own personal sense of failure and limitation is that I was consistently unable to motivate others in th church to join me outside the church. It broke my heart then, breaks my heart now, and is part of why I ask the question, how badly do we really want “new” members? I am not saying it is easy, or even that it will work…UNLESS we are willing to make some huge, fundamental changes in our attitudes about who belongs and who doesn’t; who is acceptable and who is not.

      • Dan – thanks so much for this reply especially, and to the one who inspired it with his question. You’ve nailed the only sensible approach available for those inside the church, which goes beyond open hearts, minds and doors, and way beyond ten thousand doors. The culture awaiting inside our churches, even the most hospitable, is difficult to overcome.

      • Dan, thank you for this response. This is very helpful and inspiring.

        Let me know when you host training seminars on meeting bars.

  4. thanks John…we need to remember that Moses was a second career person, without his experience in Pharoah’s court he wouldn’t have had the creds to approach them to ask for the release of the Israelites – but I digress.

    As far as nuts and bolts I am very involved in the community by virtue of being a parent, and a citizen – I am amazed at how many opportunities I have to develop relationships with both the more intellectual folk as well as the marginalized. We have to keep our eyes open and be willing to spend some time in conversation building relationships. Its pretty cool actually some of the small groups that we’re growing – one will be reading Flannery O’Connor and CS Lewis off site in a coffee shop – think of the opportunities we will have for conversation about our Triune God!

    I guess the main thing is that I am not focusing on bringing members into the United Methodist church, instead I am walking along with another Child of God…what a cool journey to be a part of.

    • Hooray! Members are great, but they’re not really the point. Children of God walking the journey together? It doesn’t get any better.

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