Yesterday Once More

I am constantly amazed at how many churches are looking for their future in their past.  It’s a bit like looking in the cupboard to see if we can find the best meal we ever ate.  For a people who believe that their Savior makes all things new, we certainly don’t act like it.  I cannot tell you the number of Church Councils I meet with to talk about their vision for the future, and what they tell me is what they looked like in their bygone glory days.  For example, across the country United Methodist Churches have very little appeal for families with young children who have no desire for anything more than Sunday child care and a fun hour of singing and stories.  Yet, we continue to pin our future on recreating a (very brief) golden age from the 1950s and 1960s when our Sunday schools were filled to brimming.  Of course, Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren were making more children in those days.  However, Christian Educator’s Fellowships coast-to-coast do everything in their power to keep the nostalgia for those mythic days alive.  This in a culture where the majority of today’s church-children are born into families of conservative evangelicals who already have a church (non-denominational) affiliation.  The secular consultants that most of our agencies have hired to tell them how to be church have admitted to us that we simply do not have much of a “market” with children and youth, yet the majority of our churches still maintain “children are our future.” (Note: “children/youth/young adults are our future” is a dumb thing to say.  They are the church NOW, and any “future” that depends on cultivating long-term or lifelong relationships with any one congregation in this day and age is doomed to fail…)

What is fascinating is that many of our healthiest churches have shifted their attention AWAY from children, youth and families with young children.  The fastest growing segment of the U.S. population is older adults, not children, and churches that are positioning themselves to have fantastic adult ministries are cleaning up — at the expense of the maudlin few who keep pining for the “little ones.”  (No, don’t get all upset.  If your church HAS a potential to serve young families with children, go for it!  I’m talking about the cultural trend.  If you HAVE children, you’re not just wishing FOR children, which is a very significant difference.)

The great thing about dynamic adult ministries, with a special emphasis on retired people, is that the population segment is growing, AND we will always make more!  Talk about a market!  Baby Boomers live to be served and to be comfortable.  But they also seek to do good and make a difference.  Powerful, healthy older adult ministries may just… “change the world.”  Our future doesn’t lie in the past, but it may well rest with people who have survived the past to create an exciting new future.  Older adults are becoming more and more active later and later into their golden years.  In my thirty years meeting with church leadership teams I have noted the generational shift.  The contrast revolves essentially around energy.  As Baby Boomers hit retirement, they seem not to be seeking rest, but fun — they want to be active in ways different from those they have been in the past.  Boredom is anathema to the Boomers.  They are used to taking on large projects.  What wore people out a generation ago are exciting and challenging to older adults today.  It has been interesting to note the rising age of participants of national and international mission projects.  Ministries that connect the assets and energy of the retiring Boomer generation are almost guaranteed to thrive — if we can change our thinking.  And as we create ministries that are most socially active and outreaching, we create the kinds of environments that are more attractive to younger audiences as well.  Win-win.  But that future does not lie in our recent past.

Another danger our recent past poses to being ready to create a future is worship.  For most of the 20th century, worship was the primary entry point into a congregation for most people.  People “tried out” a church on Sunday morning.  Sunday worship (and later Saturday night, a weeknight, etc.) became the primary vehicle for evangelism and outreach.  The only way to “grow a church” was by getting more fannies in the pews each week.  “Going to church” wasn’t about engaging in the ministries of a community of faith on a regular, integrated basis (as it was in the 19th century), but about attending a one-hour (give-or-take) worship service.  A great deal of effort and energy has been given to nurturing a relationship with worship visitors — training ushers and greeters, fellowship pads (to capture contact information), follow-up visits (with edible goodies or promotional detritus), visitor packs, name tags, “hospitality” training, marketing campaigns with banners and slogans.  This has been the norm for a century.  But times change.  Many congregational leaders note that fewer and fewer visitors to worship form an ongoing relationship to their church.  Relationships form invitationally, and the invitations are shifting from worship to small groups, mission projects, and outreach projects.  For a growing number of churches — among them our healthiest and most robust (with few exceptions) — worship is no longer the primary entry point.  Formational relationships, characterized by two-way engagement, are emerging as the preferred bridge into a community of faith.  Worship is much too passive and “one-way” for modern interactive generations.  Give-and-take is a higher value than sit-and-receive.  Worship has been changing to address this shift, but not fast enough.  Too many in worship prefer the way it has been to desire anything different.  Churches that are aware that there are many doors into the church, and that the sanctuary door is no longer first among equals, are going to do the best.

Bible study and Sunday school present similar challenges.  A shorthand (and overly simplistic) analysis of a three-century trajectory indicates that “Christian education” and learning in the 19th century was primarily about “inspiration;” in the 20th century “information;” and in the 21st “formation & transformation.”  Relevant, practical, applicable learning is the highest value of the day, and things like Disciple Bible Study, as fantastic as it is, will no longer cut it.  With its talking head “experts” and its linear read-take notes-talk process, it feels much “older” than 25 years.  Sitting and talking about information offers limited appeal to many spiritual seekers with no formal church affiliation.  Formation and transformation are active and interactive.  They are less centered in the mind, and more manifest in the body.  I met with a confirmation class recently that spent no more than ten minutes of their time together each week in the church — each and every week they were in the community, in other churches, meeting with other people, working on projects.  The young people agreed that it was the most fund they had ever had at church and that they were getting an exciting picture of what being Christian could be like.  What is working well with teenagers is translating across generations.  I think about the UMW circle in Nashville that held their monthly meeting in a downtown soup kitchen and regularly got together with the Hindu women’s group to plan collaborative community projects and provided “care packages” to international students at Vanderbilt and Fisk University.  This UMW had no problem attracting new, younger women — though most of the UMWs stuck in their churches did.

What we were — all that we have been — is great.  But it can either be a foundation upon which to build or an anchor that pulls us down.  It is up to us to decide which it will be.  The future does not lie in the past.  What we have been, we will not be again.  But what we become can be magnificent — by God’s grace and guidance. It’s time to get out of Egypt.  The Promised Land awaits.

8 replies

  1. There is one spectacularly successful educational effort going on in our churches which is almost completely ignored by the United Methodist Church. I refer to the thousands of daily preschool and early learning center programs. We have no idea how many there are or how many students they reach. Imagine, there are hundreds of thousands of parents paying from $1000 to $2000 per year to send their children to a school in a United Methodist Church every day. As far as I can determine there are no United Methodist guidelines for preschool/early learning programs; no training; no curricula; no denominational accreditation. These schools rely instead on state and national accrediting agencies. How can we do anything credible in Christian education or reach out to children and their parents when we don’t recognize or affirm the programs and persons that are already in existence and are having an impact.

  2. Dan — I’m not sure I understand the first example you give. Are parents seeking more for their children than churches can offer in Sunday School? I’ll admit my bias that the best thing SS teachers can offer is a loving, caring relationship that remembers kids’ names, listens to them, offers simple ways to worship & pray, teaches some Bible stories and encourages kids to think about them, shape peer relationships — and sings! As public school classrooms get more crowded, Sunday School can offer some benefits kids aren’t much getting elsewhere. One of our challenges is finding adult volunteers who can commit to being regularly present, especially if involved in choir or other Sunday morning activities/ministry. My biased 2 cents!

    • Like I said, if you have children to focus on, fine. Do it and do it well. In the majority of our congregations, there is virtually no market for children/families with young children. Does it make sense for an older congregation with limited resources in a demographic region where the number of children under twelve is decreasing and the largest population growth by percentage is adults 55 and older, and where independent/evangelical churches with facilities designed for children and younger famililes already offer what the small segment is looking for, to allocate their resources to do something they are not well-equipped or gifted to do, or to focus where there is growth and mission potential? 1950s thinking says, “children/families with young children;” 2000s thinking says “where there is need and potential.” The point of the illustration is that pinning our hopes on what we once had but lost and most likely will not have again is useless — and the primary focus area for wishing (not faithful planning) is on kids.

      • Now I understand your point. We had a telling moment a couple of years back, when one of our church’s leaders suggested that rather than spending money to hire someone to encourage the spiritual growth of the folks in the congregation, we could drive around and bring in teens and young people and provide a program for them, as a way to grow the church.

  3. I’m going to push on the next to last paragraph a bit, for while I understand the push against the informational paradigm, I also think we have to guard against an formational/experiential one that can easily become disconnected from a sense of tradition, theology, and connection to God. The danger of the ReThink Church campaign is that it focuses so much on service and action that it fails to balance acts of mercy with acts of piety, formation with information, love of God with love of neighbor. What I’ve found with “formation” is that it often has little connection to faith without a smattering of information along the way, setting the context for what we are doing as a faith practice rather than simply doing good things. Faith is about engaging both head and heart, mind and body. Experiences like that of the confirmation class are certainly important for younger kids who are less capable of abstract thinking, but as those of us who have been doing the “service/learning” thing can tell you, there comes a point where folks need to go deeper, and need an informational foundation in order to give their service meaning. Without a recognition of the “both/and” tension between formation and information, we find ourselves unbalanced with little understanding about the what and why of this call of Christ.

    • Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t intend to imply that any of these predominant energies were exclusive of the others, but that one emerges as primary. Part of the reason the 20th century was characterized by “right thinking” and preferred information was a direct reaction to the enthusiasm and emotionalism of the 19th century. But it certainly never disappeared. We got Pentecostalism in the 20th century as a “remedy” for the dry, dogmatic approach on the rise. And the roots of the intellectualization of Christianity had already begun in Germany before the 20th century. So, yeah, the all coexist all the time, but I believe there is a gravitational center that keeps shifting — and it is now ascending in experience and formation (eclipsing tradition, scripture, and reason, in Methodist parlance).

    • In the balancing act between Piety and Mercy, John Wesley adds Church before Piety and Holy Tempers after Mercy. He seems to do so in a hierarchy of values that, in this particular, does put Mercy above Piety. Check out his sermon “On Zeal” (#92). Here is a URL and excerpt.

      http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umhistory/wesley/sermons/92/

      Lastly. If true zeal be always proportioned to the degree of goodness which is in its object, then should it rise higher and higher according to the scale mentioned above; according to the comparative value of the several parts of religion. For instance, all that truly fear God should be zealous for the Church; both for the catholic or universal church, and for that part of it whereof they are members. This is not the appointment of men, but of God. He saw it was “not good for men to be alone,” even in this sense, but that the whole body of his children should be “knit together, and strengthened, by that which every joint supplieth.” At the same time they should be more zealous for the ordinances of God; for public and private prayer, for hearing and reading the word of God, and for fasting and the Lord’s supper. But they should be more zealous for works of mercy, than even for works of piety. Yet ought they to be more zealous still for all holy tempers, lowliness, meekness, resignation: but most zealous of all, for that which is the sum and the perfection of religion, the love of God and man.

  4. Dan,

    More words of passion, truth and reason. Thanks!

    I might argue that formation via experience informed but primarily embodying deep theology (“thick practices”) has always been the de facto gravitational center of every religion– or institution, for that matter– that endures. And moving away from that gravitational center is the surest way to head into decline and, if not corrected, oblivion.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

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