To the Unrealistically Depressingly Fatalistically Statistically Biased

oldpeopleWe’re old.  We’re dying.  We’re decaying.  We’re declining.  We’re ineffective.  We’re irrelevant.  Doesn’t that motivate you to do better?  Come on, be honest.  Don’t such messages just fill you with energy, vigor, passion and hope?  Sure they do, otherwise why would we dwell so constantly upon them?  Why waste time envisioning ourselves as God is calling us to be when we can wallow in all the things we aren’t?  Doom-and-gloomers eat this stuff up.  The United Methodist Church will be gone in 40 years.  The average age of United Methodists is 104.  We’re closing 24,000 churches every year.  It’s like crack.  Once we taste the bad news, we simply can’t get enough of it.

I hate the misuse of statistics, but I have to admit it’s very easy to do.  All you have to do is count something, frame it in a specific way, twist it 45 degrees, take it completely out of context and pretend it is the only thing that matters, and then present it as “fact.”  It’s fun, and anyone can do it.  Plus, once the results are published there is the added joy of all the many ways the findings can be misinterpreted, misunderstood, and miscommunicated.  Nothing irks me more than someone who knows better delivering sincere misinformation as insightful and true.  I attended a domestic violence workshop once where the “expert” claimed that in the 90 minutes we had been together, “31,000 children were victims of abuse in the United States.”  Now, do the math — this is over 340 children a minute, 489,000 a day, 14,688,000 a month — every child in the U.S. is abused no less than twice a year.  Yikes, what a terrible childhood we suffer in these United States.

We do the same thing in the church.  Leaders, not called to ministry for their math skills, extrapolate a linear decline and tell us that there will be no UMC by 2050.  Looks good on paper, but if we were to apply the same simplistic formula to the  pre=”the “>UMC from 1972-1978, we should cease to exist in 2013 — so kiss your congregation goodbye.  We’re almost done.  Oh, wait, no we’re not.  Regressions don’t work that way.  Certainly we will be much smaller, but our decline is not uniform and consistent. It follows a curved path, not a straight line.  And not every participant is “of equal value” (statistically).  And a hundred other factors that no one bothers to mention because it isn’t as sensational.  Incomplete information is often worse than no information at all.

It is critically important that we recognize the unintended consequences of what we are saying by painting such a pitiful picture.  Such fatalism may not motivate change, but may merely hasten our decline and possible demise.  People in modern American culture like to back winners, not strugglers.  If a church is doing good work and isn’t constantly in survival mode, it offers much greater appeal than its counterparts.  By constantly framing what we are — a middle-age and older denomination — as a negative, we incite all kinds of unpleasant responses.  Think of your sixty-eight year old, pot-bellied uncle Joe dressing up in tight disco clothes (thinking these are “cool” and “hip”) with his shirt unbuttoned to his naval, crashing a college party — this is what much that we Baby Boomers call “contemporary” or “praise” worship looks like to young adults.  Constantly telling older congregations that they have to attract young people is like saying, “be what you’re not, to attract those least like you, so that no one can be happy.”  There is great potential for cross-generational ministry — but it may not be in worship or spiritual formation.  Being the best older adult church you can be may actually give you more of a future than doing poor ministry designed to lure young people.  (No, I am not advocating “giving up” on young adults.  If anything, I am advocating that we quit trying to force them into our outdated molds and let them take more control in launching and sustaining churches actually geared toward youth culture.)

A steady diet of what we don’t have, what we can’t do, what we’ve lost, how far behind we are takes its toll on the heart, soul and spirit of leadership.  Combine that with the unrealistic burden of the few high-profile “success” stories (i.e., those growing in numbers, not necessarily in impact) and the frustration and exhaustion quotients sky-rocket.  There is an insidious psychological damage being done by all our half-truths and spurious use of statistics.  I don’t mean to say we aren’t in decline or aren’t facing serious problems.  But there are a wide variety of reasons why we are in the shape we’re in, and our future doesn’t lie in the past, nor is it limited by our present.

In 1956, the U.S. population was just under 170 million.  Today it is approximately 308 million, not quite doubled.  In 1956, estimates of the number of individual churches in the U.S. range between 170,000 – 220,000; today we are looking at 1.1 million organized, chartered congregations (including independent, LDS, New Age, etc.).  While the population has doubled, the number of faith options has increased fivefold.  Television, para-church organizations, digital technology, and general business all compete today for people’s time and attention in a way they did not in 1956.  Also, the modern memory of 1956 tends to glorify the past.  A majority of Protestant congregations in 1956 didn’t track attendance on a regular basis.  Some researchers and sociologists now believe that our memory of regular attendance might be highly inflated and inaccurate.  Did we attend more faithfully 50 years ago?  Without a doubt!  But our decline might not be nearly as steep as many make it out to be.  Anecdotally, my grandfather never missed Sunday worship — he slept through at least fifty services a year.  Today he would have the decency to stay home to sleep.  The change for him would not be in the level of his discipleship, but in the location of his rest…

When I conducted the Seeker Study research for the General Board of Discipleship, I was amazed to find hundreds of young adults (19-31) who pray daily, study scripture regularly, volunteer time as an expression of their Christian faith, and who discuss their faith in some form of ongoing small group or partnered relationship, BUT do not attend any church.  I won’t go into all the reasons here, but basically the institutional church offers them little of value in their faith formation, and they choose to journey independently or with fellow disaffected pilgrims on similar journeys.  In subsequent research, this segment of our population is growing — yet they report no religious affiliation on surveys.  They dislike labels and they vehemently do not want to be lumped in with “church people.”  As one young person told me, “I would rather people thought I was an atheist than a “Christian.”  Christians here are scary people.  I am a follower of Jesus Christ, but I am NOT a Christian.”  Hmmm….

All this is to say we need to choose our future wisely and not be motivated by half-truths and incomplete stories.  We all know we have less people today than we used to.  We all know that the life expectancy is lengthening and therefore we will have more old people longer in our churches.  We also know that whoever holds the power will create the church they like best — so old people will continue to make nice, comfy old people churches.  If we want young people, we need to let them create young people churches, and not try to make everyone compromise and be things they’re not.  I have said it before and I will say it until I die:  we have got to stop worrying about the 6 million we have lost and start strategizing with and empowering the almost 8 million we have.  Until we do a better job with people who already like us, we won’t do very well with those who don’t yet know us.  It’s up to us.  Continue to wallow in our anxiety, fear, and frustration or work with God to build something beautiful?

10 replies

  1. I was amazed to find hundreds of young adults (19-31) who pray daily, study scripture regularly, volunteer time as an expression of their Christian faith, and who discuss their faith in some form of ongoing small group or partnered relationship, BUT do not attend any church. I won’t go into all the reasons here, but basically the institutional church offers them little of value in their faith formation, and they choose to journey independently or with fellow disaffected pilgrims on similar journeys.

    Did the insititution once deliver these things and does not now, or was the institution always about some other set of things – identity? – that is no longer as relevent?

    • This is a gross oversimplification, but it is at the heart of the disconnect: where churches are more focused on their own needs, comfort, property, facilities, reputation, growth and popularity, there is less interest from most young people. Unfortunately, this short list of foci encompasses most of our churches, so there are very few churches that have deep appeal to young people seeking a journeying spiritual community. Of course, this applies to most institutional churches of all denominations and stripes, so we are not alone.

      This Christian demographic is acknowledged by Gallup, Pew, Barna and others, but generally ignored because it doesn’t fit existing categories well, and it doesn’t provide much promise for existing mainline institutions. I think many young people on college campuses find community in small ecumenical groups, and they are replicating these relationships after they graduate. However, I also discovered similar groups of people in their forties and fifties as well. In the Baltimore area I met a group of healthcare professionals who pray, worship and study together, and offer their expertise and medical skills to the poor throughout the city. Most of these folks are over 40 and they all agree that being part of a church would detract from the ministry they are able to do, and would not help them in their spiritual growth. Almost all come from traditional church backgrounds and speak from experience. In 2004, the group paid one of their own to attend seminary with no other expectation than this person would share what she was learning with the larger group. Since I began sharing this story, I have had no less than fifteen other groups from all around the country contact me to share similar stories. This “underground” Christian movement is off most people’s radar screen, though every once in awhile it pops up as a novelty. I have a hunch there are a lot more people out there that fall into this category. In my last church, I had a couple drop out of the church, but not because they were drifting from the faith. When I met with them they told me that they left the church because they decided to “get serious about our faith.” What a shocker that was. They were hungry for much more than what they felt we offered. Is this a small number of people in our culture? Probably. But I would rather have a handful of people truly serious about discipleship than a multitude of passive Christian consumers waiting to be entertained and inspired…

  2. I find it interesting your statement that congregations with older demographics may need to accept that younger folks will want to establish their own worship experiences and churches while maintaining cross generational work.

    This has been challenge for me personally and as I have talked with folks I grew up with and who don’t frequent the church much anymore several things have popped up.

    1) A relationship with God is important

    2) Spiritual Disciplines are still relevant

    3) Worship itself as it is conducted is not relevant.

    Now the Church I have attended is a merged congregation that does a solid job of ministering to seniors and late middle age adults.I wish I was over 50 the opportunities are awesome,education, volunteer work, worship etc we do a really great job of this!! Worship though isn’t relevant to young adults or X’ers though. It is not that our leadership doesn’t try to incorporate new worship practices and styles but it is like watching old folks rap and break dance, yeah they may do it but man its hard to look at!!
    I think a middle ground is to let young lay people to develop and execute new worship under supervision of an elder within existing congregations. This allows for cross generational interaction while granting that worship has to change.

    • I’m right there with you. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel — we just need to realize that we can get a whole lot farther with more than just one wheel.

  3. Dan,

    Is the issue wheels, or is it consumerism?

    It simply doesn’t seem to me that reinventing worship for or by different age cohorts actually accomplishes much other than the further fragmentation of whatever ritual community we have.

    Is your suggestion that worship may not be a cross-generational opportunity in a way capitulating to the age-cohort targeting that marketers have conditioned our culture to expect– and so also capitulating to a consumerist model of what worship itself is to be? Put more bluntly (and biblically), is the thought that we need to do worship that “lures” different age groups differently a capitulation of our ritual life to Mammon?

    I’d say if we think worship is “for us” to “suit our tastes” and be “relevant” in the sense of doing those things, then, indeed, we have become idolaters.

    Worship isn’t a wheel that needs to be reinvented to suit one group or another. Christian worship is intended to be the work of the people who offer it.

    That means both “museum piece” and “cutting edge” as basic models for thinking about and planning worship are wrongheaded.

    You get old people doing embarrassing things and young people doing things they can’t stand and have no way of understanding when they’re trying to suit each other at a distance. You get something far more lively and challenging when we’re trying to find the best ways for all of us together to worship God as well as we can in continuity with the whole of the church.

    When that’s happening, neither your grandfather nor my older son would go to sleep when they do come– that is, unless they really didn’t intend to be part of a worshiping community but rather thought they were supposed to be entertained in some way in the first place.

    • I guess we just disagree about the importance of the worship service. I said very little about worship in my post. I see the issue as much larger, and I seldom reduce the argument to styles and preferences anyway. Forcing people into our molds of what they ought to “need” has a poor track record — whether we limit the discussion to worship or not. I fall back to the old “the system is designed for the results it is getting.” If we are happy with what we are getting, we need to stay the course. If we want and expect different results, we need to quit moaning and bitching and change the system. That’s basically all I am saying in the post.

  4. We ARE a plural church (within UMC and within Christendom), but isolate ourselves as congregations so we can believe otherwise. When a structure is put in place to counteract this, the clergy are the first to resist, often actively hiding the structure from their congregation. Similarly, we cannot bear the rise of something different inside a congregation. The UMC Discipline, in the Local Church section, provides for a very independent council of youth within the church, but I’ve rarely seen it used. I watched a pastor who was starting a youth ministry avoid the structure in favor of a collection of adult committees to execute the various, and sometimes overlapping, functions of the ministry. When founding a new church through the mission process, a sponsoring congregation gladly lends a few members to get things rolling – as long as it’s “not in my back yard” and they don’t “steal our members”. The Discipline might provide a set of applicable processes for it, but the succession of one church by another is a social taboo.

  5. Dan:

    You’ve raised lots of issues in this post—too many to address in a single comment. But, by and large, you’re speaking great wisdom here.
    I’m the Editor of http://www.ReadTheSpirit.com which now is two years old and has a global following—all focused around sharing recommended “good ideas” about religious life.
    Two ideas that strongly illustrate what you’re describing here are:
    On our front page there’s a link to “Bible Here and Now,” which was developed with a United Methodist author Beth Miller. It’s now 8 weeks into the experiment of offering free weekly curriculum for youth groups—and what we’ve found are lots of adult groups contacting us asking for similar formats. We’ll be launching those in January. We also find, if you look through our back issues of the “Bible” piece—adults and youth talking together in a couple of our past videos.
    Second illustration—and we just sent out a news story on this Monday to our email subscribers:
    A pastor in Los Angeles, the Rev. Tom Eggebeen, is working with a church of mainly senior citizens. He’s semi-retired himself. But, instead of doing the “normal” process of essentially survival-mode planning, he asked these folks what motivates their lives.
    The answer came back: their pets, specifically their dogs.
    Tom and his congregation worked long and hard to plan a first-ever series of weekly services in which people could bring their dogs. Not a one-time blessing of pets, but a weekly service planned from the liturgy to the layout of the room.
    We reported on that idea. Associated Press picked up our story. Over the past two weeks, Tom’s church has been all over national media.
    Suddenly, his “dying” church is a beacon of innovation and people are beating a pathway to his congregation to find out how they did it.
    It’s precisely what you’re talking about here.
    Thanks!

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