“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.'” (Genesis 12:1-2)
I took last week off from church to do some reading and thinking about the church. I’m not just thinking about the church I currently serve; I’m thinking of The Church – the wider church beyond denomination; the “Big C” church.
I know that what I write will sound pessimistic. But maybe it is only pessimistic through the lens with which you read this.
I actually came late to Christian discipleship having been baptized in 1990 when I was 35 years old (you can do the math). Don’t ask me why, but within months I was asked to serve as a deacon. Anyway, I have a distinct memory of one meeting in the early 90s when I heard the words, “We need more young people. Why aren’t they coming to church?” I’ve heard this ongoing lament at least a few times a year every year since then. Hearing it so often made me realize, even before going to seminary, that the church has to change. Seminary helped me to think more systematically about it. Doing interim work makes me think even more frequently about the future of the church.
The church as most of know it has to change if it is to remain vital for another generation or two. Up until recently I used the image of a train leaving the station, “Get on board because this train has to leave this station soon. If you don’t get on, you will remain on the platform.” The image, though, does not convey the need for change accurately. The train metaphor implicitly acknowledges that we know where we’re going, when the reality is we don’t know. I’ve since come to root this need for change in Abram’s story. He and his family could not stay in Haran. They had to leave without knowing precisely where they were going, the route they were traveling, or what they would find when they arrived. They relied upon God.
We can’t stay the way we are. The church I currently serve has a building way too large for the size of the congregation, but this is not unique to this congregation. This is the same issue for the other major Protestant churches in Pittsfield and in communities across the nation, even for congregations in smaller communities with smaller buildings. And if it’s not the size of the building, then it might be sustaining pastoral ministry – increasingly congregations are facing a shift from full-time to part-time ministry (Health insurance costs being an unspoken factor. Furthermore, if I read right, the United Methodist Church voted this week that ordained clergy will not be guaranteed full-time ministry.) The average age in the pew increases each year. We can’t stop mortality, either.
We’ve got to get more young people…. So maybe we have to update our music. Maybe we have to add multimedia. Maybe we have add programs which will appeal to that demographic. I don’t actually think these are bad ideas, but I’m also not sure if they are enough.
This video, The Church and the Grocery Store, points out the change. Basically, the local grocery store has changed over the decades as the local church remained virtually unchanged. The store added more variety, especially catering to the changing local demographics. It added more technology, such as electronic cash registers. But even as I think about this video, I wonder about the grocery store, too. The video doesn’t address the future as people can purchase their groceries on-line and have them delivered to their homes. (makes you wonder if a couple of decades from now the grocery store becomes more like a warehouse with people no longer needing to drive there – but that’s another topic.)
Here’s the dilemma. Many clergy with whom I regularly talk know that the church cannot remain as it is presently, but we frankly don’t know what the future looks like. There are books, many of them thought-provoking. But here’s the reality, if there was a clearly delineated step-by-step process, most of us would have embarked on it already. Without being able to change the church’s ministry in a clearly defined way, why should our congregations make significant changes? Yet, our situation is not unlike that of Abram’s – we have to place our faith and trust in God as we move into unknown territory.
Change, though, is difficult. We need only to think about changes we’ve experienced. People who love the church, especially if they find comfort as it is, need to have a really good reason to make changes in the ministry of the church because it’s working for them now.
Ronald Heifetz in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press: 2009) wrote, “Resistance to change stems from a fear of losing something important.” (Page 96) Change can be hard in the church because it’s working in this moment. Thinking a generation out is too far forward.
But the church model under which most of us operate is not sustainable for another generation.
Heifetz classifies change in two ways, technical problems and adaptive challenges. Technical problems can be resolved through an organization’s current structures, procedures, and processes. Adaptive challenges, however, require changing people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Expressed as the church, we can change worship by broadening the type of music or integrating multimedia or adding liturgical dance. We can redo our bylaws. Those resolve technical problems. But for the church to remain vital for another generation that is an adaptive challenge. We might have to answer some questions: How important is our building to our ministry? What is our expectation of pastoral leadership? What does it mean to be a disciple today and what will it mean in the future?
We don’t really know. But after reading and thinking this past week as well as mulling a lot of this stuff over the past several months, I’ve come to see that while there may not be a definitive model, there are hallmarks. They include: recapturing the counter-cultural aspect of the gospel, engaged ministry in and among the community outside of the church, and strong relational bonds within the church community. It entails understanding love as a verb and that church is not about being fed, but doing the feeding. We should understand church as transforming lives and that discipleship should stress doing over believing.
We also need to change our thinking about why the church means something in our communities. For the oldest generation in our churches and some of the older people in the baby boom, church membership was a mark of proper civic engagement. The church was a prominent place in our communities where people could help others. Now with the rise in all sorts of agencies and all sorts of volunteer opportunities, why do we matter? We might have to reach back into scripture (I keep being drawn to Acts) for our justification.
The future of the church is on my mind. I know that my task as the interim pastor at First Baptist Church of Pittsfield is to help the congregation call its next pastor. But I cannot shake this belief that this church, along with the other major churches in this city (and I daresay many across the country), have to look beyond the next four or five years if we are to have a continues role to play in our communities.
I’m thinking of a hymn written by Leon Roberts, Jesus is Here Right Now. Simply stated, I think we need to make Jesus very real in our ministries so when people encounter us on the street or in our churches, they will meet Jesus. Meeting Jesus may just be what we need to keep us relevant.