What Is The Church’s Future?

Steve Wright is one of my best friends en todo el mundo. At Southern California’s Cypress High School, we were always the last two shivering on the deck at our 6:30a.m. water polo practices. Eventually, Coach Drent’s threats of additional yardage got us airborne over our fog-shrouded pool.

Today, Steve is a pastor in Huntington Beach, CA, a driver and fairway metal from where we spent our summers surfing and honing our frisbee genius. I invite you to eavesdrop on my Thanksgiving letter to him.

Dear Steve,

Thanks for the excellent resource you posted to Facebook recently. That essay, coupled with several recent “healing” sessions at our church, has me thinking about our church’s recent challenges with conflict and the future of the church more generally. I thought I’d update you on the goings on at Olympia’s Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in the hope that what I’ve been thinking about has broader relevance to yours and other churches.

As I listen to people process what happened, I keep returning to four ideas. To understand the first, you have to understand who is attending our healing sessions. The vast majority are the “committed core”, about 15% of the congregation, whose average age is about 70. These stalwarts regularly remind people they’ve been members for 30-50+ years. They spend a lot of time at church and passionately refer to it as their “family”. Some of them are still upset that the Church Council I serve on asked our previous pastor to resign, others that it took us too long to reach that decision, but I digress.

They’re inspiring people whose experience, commitment, and gifts we honor. We also have to understand and be sensitive to their desire to “do church” in the manner they’re most familiar.

My first idea. The more I listen to the committed core talk to one another, the more convinced I am that they don’t have any feel for why younger people and families with school aged children don’t attend or don’t get more involved. We have to make sure the committed core know they’re valued, while listening to and learning from much younger former members, visitors, and others who are just dipping their toes in the LGCS water. Like ethnographers, we need to ask questions of those people and encourage them to talk openly and honestly about what their church experience is like and how they might change it. Absent that type of applied anthropology, I am not optimistic about our future.

My second idea begins with a tangent, but bear with me, it relates. Three-fourths of the way through A’s and J’s schooling, it dawned on me that despite being a former teacher and now a teacher educator, I hadn’t been very involved in their schooling. Kinda ironic. Yes, I attended conferences, but I never filled out a single form or did anything extra. I wondered why and concluded it was The Gal Pal’s fault because she had it totally under control. I didn’t have to do anything because she took charge and immediately swatted any and all forms or related responsibilities back over the net. We shoulda been playing doubles, but I ceded the court to her and neither of us really realized it until after the match was over.

Similarly, think of all the uber-responsible people in their 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who have taken the lead in the care of their aging parent(s). In some cases, allowing their siblings to coast.

I suspect younger, more casual members of our church watch the committed core in action and conclude “They have it totally under control.” Idea two. I am convinced that the committed core has to let go a bit and learn to do less to create the space for the next generation of members to develop deeper commitments to the community. This is hella tough though because their identities are so closely tied to their church roles and activities.

I’ve observed a similar dynamic in higher education. Almost always, the most senior faculty are the most vociferous when a new curriculum is being developed despite the fact that they won’t be around to implement it. It’s exasperating to say the least. They simply can’t let go.

How do we nudge the committed core to choose not to serve on Council so that other newer members can? How do we get them to speak less often in meetings so that other newer members can? And maybe even, how do we get them to volunteer a little less, so that newer members need to?

Idea three. When it comes to church conflict, we talk about the importance of forgiveness, but absent regular opportunities to work through contending viewpoints about how things are or aren’t going, resentments build. Too often, we rush to “just be done” with a conflict before people truly reconcile. Then, when the next conflict arises, people’s resentments inevitably resurface, making the resolution of the conflict much more complex and challenging. It’s like we’re on a bench press and between reps someone keeps adding 10 lb. weights on each end of the bar.

Also, I doubt that casual church goers are very understanding of church conflict. Idea four. Everyone has a finite capacity for dealing with conflict. And everyone has a little or a lot in their extended families and at their workplaces. It may be naive, but it’s also totally understandable for people to want their church to be somewhat of a conflict-free oasis. Wherever and whenever a couple of hundred people form community, there will be conflict, but given our finite capacity for dealing with it, how do we proactively reduce the number and intensity of conflicts in our church communities?

I left you with a question, which I guess means you have to write back. Or give me an extra 500 yards.

I’m thankful for our friendship.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours,

Ron

 

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Absent the 1980 Summer Olympic boycott, Steve, Kevin, and I woulda brought home water polo gold. I’m sure of it.

Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

Last week, a friend, via Facebook, asked me how I was doing. “Excellent,” I wrote. “My family is healthy and happy.” At this stage in my life, everything beyond my family’s health and happiness is like desert, nice, but unnecessary.

Like individuals, organizations can’t evaluate how they’re doing without first clarifying what’s most important. That’s why so many teachers are frustrated today, schools obsess about students’ test scores instead of whether students are curious, kind, and able to accomplish meaningful things in small groups.

On Sundays, I often wonder how do religious leaders keep score? What’s most important in evaluating how a church, synagogue, or mosque is doing? That the budget is balanced, that attendance is increasing, that a lot of mission work is being done?

Our church is in transition. Sometime in the next four or five months, a new pastor will replace our two departing ones. The reduction is partly due to a 20% decrease in membership and a 13% decrease in giving.

Here’s my imperfect understanding of what’s happened. Four or five years ago we hired two progressive pastors who were left-of-center politically; some key church council leaders were lefties; our synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to ordain gay clergymen and women; our state voted in favor of marriage equality; and we rewrote our “Welcoming Statement” to explicitly reach out to GLBT members of our community.

That pace of change overwhelmed some people. Also, as it turns out, people inside religious organizations have dispiriting personality conflicts just like people on the outside. One of our church members told me the members who won the political debates about gay clergy, marriage equality, and the wording of our Welcoming Statement were not gracious winners.

How do religious bodies negotiate political differences and does that factor into how they are doing? Conventional wisdom is that religious leaders and their congregants should leave politics aside. I disagree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints. Public dialogue about controversial issues is so anemic right now, lots of people on the outside would take notice.

Granted, that’s easy to assert in the abstract, but when talking about abortion, the death penalty, or even marriage equality, it’s much, much harder to implement. In fact, I wonder, are there examples of political diverse religious communities thoughtfully engaged with contemporary issues? Birds of a political feather prefer to flock together, but is that inevitably true inside churches, synagogues, and mosques as well?

I hope not. And I hope our next pastor considers that challenge among the things that matter most.

The Great Church Disconnect 2

The second of two parts.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, Lutheran ministers seem intent on giving sermons that sound beautiful, but are very difficult to remember later that same evening, let alone throughout the week in the places people live, work, and play. This is the disconnect. Many congregants are suffering from strained relationships with spouses, other family members, and co-workers, but hear little that might help them begin reconciling with one another. Many suffer from mindless materialism, but are rarely if ever challenged in any specificity to live more simply. Congregants are frustrated with the shallowness of popular culture, but aren’t taught to live more vital spiritual lives at school, at home, and the workplace.

Instead, Lutheran ministers seem intent on stringing vague generalities together. Here’s a sample from a recent sermon from one ELCA church: don’t be weary, faithfully walk in his steps, don’t be afraid, live faithfully without fear, live the faith, and walk faithfully as a community of Jesus followers. There was also a reference to “unhealthy pathways”.

The first thing I impress upon my writing students is to substitute details for vague generalities. They know that if I was to read a transcript of a typical ELCA sermon, I would sprinkle the following comments throughout: What does that mean? An example would really help here. Elaborate. Explain more fully. This leaves me scratching my head.

If some Lutheran pastors read this, they may fire back, “You clearly don’t get it. Some congregants are liberal, others conservative, and so the only way to hold things together is to avoid being too specific about anything the least bit controversial.”

And how’s the moderate, mushy, middle working out?

I go to church thinking about Saturday morning’s running debate about Islam, terrorism, Christianity, religious extremism, and the military. Or education reform. Or the deficit reduction commission. Or the health of my marriage. Or what my larger purpose in life is. And what I hear is vague, unchallenging, uninspiring, and fleeting.

There are other hypothesis for the church’s decline that I stumbled upon following a quick search. No doubt some homophobic-inclined members have left the ELCA following its 2009 decision to embrace gay and lesbian ministers and members. However, given the gradual but growing acceptance of the GLBT community in society more generally, one would think at least an equal number of gay and lesbian people would eventually join what’s now a more accepting institution.

Another is that the church simply isn’t evangelical enough in the conventional sense of knocking on doors, talking to people about their faith, and inviting them to church.

I don’t think more door knocking is necessary. More people will try out church, and decide to stick around, when congregations model getting along and truly caring for one another despite political, theological, and interpersonal differences. When people see congregations living out the Sermon on the Mount in their family lives, at their workplaces, and  in their community-based ministries. They will be attracted to people living more purposeful, selfless lives than normal.

Literary and vague sermons given by the same one or two people every Sunday will not inspire that type of Christ-centered modeling.

More specific, relevant, challenging, and inspiring preaching probably won’t reverse the downward trend by itself either. A complete rethinking of the Sunday service may be needed. That won’t happen though because the service linchpins—the liturgy, the sermon, the hymns—all resonant with the traditional, elderly, 96% white congregants who yield the most influence because they’re the longest standing members.  They are, in essence, the “default”. By deferring to the majorities desire to maintain the status quo, the steady decline will most likely continue.

The Great Church Disconnect 1

Some numbers. 67% of Americans think religion is losing influence. In 1987, there were 5.3 million people divided among 11,000 churches in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). At the end of 2009, there were 4.5 million in 10,348 churches. Since 2003, throughout the ELCA’s congregations, average weekly attendance has fallen from 144 to 131 people.

Why?

Here’s a New York-area religion reporter’s thoughts:

“I think demographics play a part. The next generation is largely unchurched, families with children are overextended, retirees move to the shore in summer and the south in winter, the faithful grandparent generation is dying.

The culprit may be our leisure society. And, believe me, I know what you are facing: working hard all week makes us feel we’ve fulfilled our obligations, need to connect with family, and enjoy that blessed reprieve of a weekend at the beach or mountains or maybe just sipping an unhurried cup of coffee while reading theTimes. We want to play with the toys we worked hard to buy.

When did God’s gift of the Sabbath become a weekend away from our Lord and from each other? Without getting into worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music, we must ask more fundamental questions. How important, how powerful is our need simply to be together? The early Christians obviously felt the presence of Christ in their gatherings but they experienced a kind of rare community, koinonia, they called it (Acts 2.42). Is there a way we can be accountable to each other as sisters and brothers in Christ? Would a pastor or deacon, a council member or a friend simply call Sunday afternoon and say ‘We missed you’?”

The ELCA church my family attends is a snapshot of the “graying of America”. I would guess the average age of people in our congregation is close to 60. There are few young families and fewer people than when we first started attending seven or so years ago.

Our church, our synod, and the ELCA are failing to connect with people in compelling ways, especially culturally diverse young and middle-aged people. Our synod’s percentage of “members of color” has exploded from 2.3% to 3.9% since 2003. Too few people are asking why the church is failing to connect with people of color in particular.

I think the religion reporter is discounting “worship wars, poor preaching, church disputes, or bad music” far too quickly. On the surface they may not seem fundamental, but words—spoken in sermons and sung in worship—are symbolic of a worldview that does or doesn’t challenge and inspire people in meaningful, compelling ways. And the Sunday service is the center of the church week and the sermon is the center of the service.

Increasingly, ELCA preaching strikes me as problematic and may in part explain the church’s decline. What’s most fascinating about the preaching problem is it’s larger than any one person or ministry team, it’s a pervasive culture whose norms I suspect are learned first and most significantly in seminary. It doesn’t matter which of the 10,338 ELCA churches you attend next Sunday, you’re likely to hear a very similar sermon that I would characterize as unceasingly literary, vague, and forgettable. To be continued.