Last Saturday I went to a congregational development/church growth workshop led by a national speaker/writer. Once again I sat in a room with people with hair much greyer than mine listening to a speaker with hair much greyer than mine telling me what people my age do and don't respond to in a church. While many of his "fixes" for churches seemed on target, many of his conclusions about people younger than forty-five years old missed the mark of the people that I know. Underlying the entire presentation was an assumption that a large church is a healthy church that is desirable for all folks under forty-five years old.
I have been struggling with this presentation ever since I went to it. Generally speaking, the presenter asserted very strongly that Gen Xers and Millenials will not go to a church that focuses on contemplative worship. Nor are they willing to learn "churchy" lingo. Nor will they turn off cell phones. While there were passing remarks about the importance of authenticity and faithfulness, it seems that these have to be packaged in such a way that oversimplifies the diversity of the population under forty-five years old. It may well be true that the majority of folks who are unchurched need churches that leave religious jargon and tradition at the door, there is a growing group of folks who crave the use of icons, quiet prayer, and the ancient traditions of our faith. I wish that we could have talked about the emerging church movement and the possibility that there is a significant minority that cares about contemplation and that wants a nuanced church that deals realistically with the complexities of life.
While the "technical fixes" may have been on target, the "adaptable change" talked about was a gross oversimplification of people under forty-five years old. I don't have data, but I do have friends who desire not large mega-churches meeting in warehouses. They want small communities that comprise people of all ages. They want a sanctuary that feels like set apart space and that inspire a sense of awe and wonder (something not found in worship rooms that look like corporate meeting rooms). They love stained glass, organs, chants in Latin, and learning the Greek of their New Testaments. They don't want a faith that gives pat and artificial answers to life's difficult trials; they want a faith that anchors them to a rich and ancient past and that invites them to witness to a gospel of liberation and interconnectedness in a world that is too fragmented and individualistic. Of course I believe that my friends and I are in the minority; I am a pastor, after all. But we do count and we are out here. Just because the statistical average calls for us to build corporate feeling and looking churches doesn't mean that there aren't Gen Xers who know how to turn off a cell phone and sit in the Divine Mystery in silence, drinking in the goodness of God.
I don't have any answers. I have a lot of questions about the whole church growth movement. Of course the institution of the church is facing a crisis. In twenty years about 80% of the church's membership will be dead. But I'm more interested in living faithfully in community than in growing my congregation's size for the sake of growth. Perhaps that makes me a bad evangelist. Clearly I am; my church is one of the many that is struggling to grow. And yet, something is possibile in my little church. It is diverse economically. It is diverse theologically. It is diverse politically. It is diverse in age. It has gay and straight folks, married and partnered folks (not many singles...that's a struggle for us). It has children and people entering their ninth decade. We use traditional liturgy peppered by things that make sense to us. We do a lot of little things that I believe hinder our growth, but I don't count in that the use of silence or our use of a sanctuary. Any thoughts on how to build a healthy, non-mega-church, diverse, faithful, progressive, church? I'm open. I sure didn't hear it last Saturday.
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