I have been in ministry since 1998. The conventional wisdom, in short, has been that the church is:
— Too enmeshed in its ways.
— Is resistant to change
— Want visitors to comply with church norms and traditions
— Plays music out of sync with the culture
— Acts as a private club
— Does not want to adapt to change
— Is too something (liberal, conservative, political, etc.)
In the time since I have become a pastor, in general, I have seen:
— The decline of the mainline church
— The rise of the mega church
— Many mainline churches taking more progressive stands (and many members revolting against such stances)
— The rise of people who maintain no faith
And almost everything I read is about how mainline and neighborhood churches have been doing things “wrong” for a long time. There is much advice over what to correct but few models of where this new “correct behavior” turned things around. When I arrived at Parkway in 2008, our local Presbytery had hired a church growth adviser who came in to speak with me. He described much of the conventional wisdom above and what we needed to do to correct it. I asked him where his advice had been successfully applied and the local church had turned around. He responded, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Really?
I do understand as a social phenomenon that what worked for the World War II generation, and many generations before it, is not working for many younger people today. They are “voting with their feet”, as it were, and in many churches the percentage of folks with gray hair is perpetually on the rise. But I wonder if current generations have really thought through the world they are building – a world with far fewer churches, particularly churches that have traditionally served the most educated in our society, and what that will mean for them and their current or even future families.
I certainly am not trying to maintain that mainline churches don’t have their issues. We certainly do. But with the criticism leveled at us, I do not see a response going on which raises the bar higher. Staying home or working for a charitable cause is not the same as being active in a community of faith. I am glad more and more people are helping their neighbors with their physical needs but I don’t expect that that will also always fulfill spiritual and emotional needs. And most mega-church sermons I stream online are “feel good” sermons and lessons. I’m not saying they have no value but many certainly lack the depth I hear from my sisters and brothers in mainline churches. Likewise, I am totally aware traditional church hymns to organ music do not have the appeal of more modern Christian bands. As a church growth professional asked us in seminary, “Who listens to organ music on the radio?” But when I put the lyrics side by side, there are few that hold the weight of most hymns. The hymns teach us something each Sunday (as do the anthems). Equally, Bible studies I find online by “big box” churches tend not to have the qualitative depth I feel most people with any education beyond high school would find deeply engaging. There are certainly exceptions to these generalizations but I feel the church landscape is containing fewer and fewer churches geared to appeal to those who usually end up having a greater influence over the course of our society at large.
The church can be entertaining, but that is not its purpose. The church is not a charity though I see many mainline churches making a huge difference for their size in the world around them. What the church is, in the end, is a family that gathers to worship God together. And just like many family units in our society, I see it frequently under stress and fracturing. What I see with churches getting smaller and graying is future neighborhoods where there will be more lonely people with much less of a support network. This will particularly come true as fewer folks get married these days and fewer have children.
What is the answer? I am always searching for it. But I become less and less convinced that the answer for the small neighborhood church is to try to copy our mega church neighbors with their music, visuals, and entertainment appeal. I think we have to go back and keep underscoring what we do well – build relationships, friendships, and show how seeking and serving God together has helped us and those around us.
To use some of the phraseology of recent years, we may need a new beginning but I don’t think that means starting over. I think more than ever it means getting to know those around us and being in communion with them as we seek God together. Change? Change will inevitably come. People change. And as people change they will change things together around them. But whatever we change we should do it because that’s what we think God is calling us to do rather than doing what we think the society around us will like.
What do you think?
Until next time,