upper room daily devotions

Thursday, March 29, 2007

cong development...another old guy telling me how to reach people my age

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.


DogBlogger said...

Thanks for posting, Katie. I've just linked to it through an entry on the Methoblog.

Brother Marty said...

I'd point you to Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, by Jim Cymbala. It's main focus is on prayer. Through prayer things happen. Through prayer, the lost find hope.

I share this as I'm personally moved by the book and the message. In our little rural church we've incorporated more prayer and it is enjoyed by the congregation. While awkward at first....those long moments of silent prayer in a worship service...the congregation has come to desire more of it.

Hope this is of help. We've attracted some new members because of this and hope that sharing this is of value to you.

rev katie m ladd said...

Bro Marty
Thanks for the pointer. I've not read it. I'll get on it right after Easter! I'm so glad that prayer is transforming your church; it is a radical act!

gavin richardson said...

i'll be in trouble as one of the focuses of our youth community is contemplative worship.. i guess our growing numbers is just God being nice to me and my stupidity in church growth. &:~)

journeyman37 said...


I was glad to find this entry via the Methoblog. You have a witness out here!

You wrote:

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.

Bad evangelist? Or solid missiologist? Sounds to me like you're helping the community you serve to be good news and recognize good news when it sees it.

As for the "under 45" generalities, count me as another "under 45" for whom those don't work, and for whom such generalities seem to be a descriptor of tendencies of SOME folks in some places in the US (mostly white, urban/suburban, middle class and up). "Trends" don't describe the missional reality that most local congregations face, and by their very nature cannot. They might give some clues or handles about some folks occasionally, but the church is always about the folks who make it up and the specific people across all demographics (not market niches or "generational cohorts") it is able to reach.

One last thing... I'm unconvinced that creating a nifty worship show for anyone or any "market niche" is the best strategy if the real goal is either to witness to the kingdom of God at work in the world or to make disciples of Jesus Christ. That was not Wesley's strategy, nor the strategy of early Christianity-- two points in church history when the number of active Christians MULTIPLIED rather than simply "increased." From what I can see, the process that leads to multiplication of highly committed disciples has been about discipleship and community first, then you might find worship the next thing you just HAVE to do. Trying to "reach" people with worship would have seemed a rather bizarre idea both to the early church and to Wesley. Why some "church growth" folks continue to promote that as a primary strategy to make Christian disciples is a few ticks beyond my comprehension. (Of course some folks I say that to look at me funny, too!).

Consumerism does work. No question about that. You can certainly get larger assemblies that way... but more committed disciples?

Stay the course the Spirit is leading, and don't let yourself or your congregation get sidetracked from what sounds like its rather significant witness.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
GBOD | The United Methodist Church


RevErikaG said...

I too, am tired of people over 45 (translate our parents) telling us who we are and we will or will not worship. And to say that we will not worship in contemplative ways misses a whole lot of what's going on with younger gens....uh, can we talk about Taize and its draw? Even within the Emergent Movement, there is a lot of emphasis on contemplative practices. I stopped going to hear these kind of speakers awhile ago because they don't seem to have clue about what's going on. Thanks for sharing a mutual frustration!

Mrs. M said...


I'm 27, and have had it up to my eyebrows with 60somethings telling me about my peers-- particularly when it's condescending and inaccurate.

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