NURTURING? PROVOKING? CHURCH? VITALITY?
By Don Remick
Associate Conference Minister
All of us who have journeyed with the Church for any part of the last half century are keenly aware of change. We have watched the devolution of the institution while watching the evolution of new trends. It would seem clear that we have a better sense of the landscape of wilderness than we do of any promised land. In this season of Lent that is a probably a good place to be, if we don’t try to hurry into fix it solutions and just listen and observe God’s movement.
The 50’s and 60’s: Most churches look back to this era with fond memories. It is called the Heyday of Mainline Protestantism. It was the era when everything closed on Sundays for worship, church was the place to make social, political and business contacts, church was the hub of community activity and free time programs, families were single income with wives/moms free and able to be fully engaged in voluntary work through the church, and the Baby Boom meant church schools were bulging at the seams. Most folks don’t look back beyond this era.
The 60’s to 80’s: Everything began to change, but the Church wasn’t noticing. Vietnam brought a whole generation to the place where they no longer trusted institutions (like the government they felt lied to and let them down). This was also the era where “You can’t trust anyone over 30” The Immigration Act meant an influx of people from all different national, ethnic and faith perspectives that changed us from a melting pot to a tossed salad. The civil rights movement and women’s liberation fundamentally challenged the social structure. Social life moved out of the church and into the ball fields and malls (which replaced the neighborhood stores) among others.
The 80’s to 2000: The church took notice of the decline and decided to try to do what it had always done in innovative, new and better ways. (Did you ever hear the saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?) Church began to focus on drawing upon the community as a resource for more people in the pews (and pledges in the pot) New “Church Growth” techniques were touted, taught, and implemented. Primarily these had to do with 1) better strategies to invite folks and market the church, 2) better ways to offer a warm welcome of hospitality 3) better follow up with visitors and 4) better approaches to assimilating new folks into the life of the church. The primary concept was how to attract more people to church (not exactly in keeping with the Great Commission).
In the meantime the culture continued to evolve. The arrival of the Internet and ever new technology connected everyone to each other and to a whole world of new access to information and opinion. The Me Generation (what some would call the Cult or Idolatry of Individualism, Independence and Autonomy) emerged. There was a loss of loyalty to any of the institutions of birth and family heritage such that if people sought out church at all they became ‘church shoppers’. Suspicion grew around the hidden agendas of any institution (”conspiracy theory”). Folk’s sense of authority for truth and values shifted from sacred texts and traditional doctrine towards personal experience and blended philosophy. On one side (for those that rejected institutional religion), any ‘litmus test’ of what you must believe in order to belong (or be considered righteous) went from being suspect to being rejected. On the other side (for those entrenched in institutional religions), a form of extremism emerged with clear litmus tests, ideologies, dogma and politics. People became more familiar with the teachings of other faiths and the composite rediscovery of old teachings that came under the umbrella of the “New Age’ movement. And the number of options for leisure time entertainment from game consoles, to Sunday youth sports to community wide activities exploded. And this is just a superficial overview of the cultural changes.
The New Millennium: 9/11 changed our world and our sense of invulnerability. The clergy sex abuse scandal crossed a spectrum from Catholicism to conservatives (and no denomination or faith group could claim it was beyond the scandal). Terrorism and Fear became the new bogeyman. Global climate change became a debate. Culture began to reject polarization in all its forms (democrat/republican, science/faith, conservative/liberal, Christian/non Christian, ‘Jew/Gentile’) [Can you hear all of politicians talking about ‘change’?] Most forms of stability (corporate, military, economic, religions, social, educational) failed to provide what people believed they promised. Pressure increased to remove ‘religion’ from the public sphere from schools to government buildings to malls. The emergent church emerged and “spiritual, but not religious” became the rallying cry. Nine US churches close every day. Only 10 – 20% of any community’s population attend Any faith community worship on any given weekend. Over 90% claim to believe in God.
Church began (or has begun) to perceive evangelism in new ways: 1) going deeper into faith (a spiritual experience of God) through reclaiming spiritual practice and genuine community with a goal of enriching faith formation rather than information 2) going outward: with intentional telling of our faith story and authentic social justice (not as a political agenda) which meant talking about why faith is important and helping people make a difference in the world and getting out of our church buildings and closed congregations and into our neighborhoods and culture (seeing and entering the world as they see it and responding to their needs).
We are discovering:
- Churches that remain isolated as organizations that exist primarily to serve their membership are becoming seen as increasingly irrelevant (at best, and damaging at worst) . Worship (whether traditional or contemporary or praise or blended or anything else) that lacks joy and an experience of the mystery of the Holy is being ignored or rejected. Anywhere from 50% to 80% of these churches will close in the next 20 years. Currently, 9 US churches close every day.
- The ‘Church Growth” model of the 80s still works, but it primarily draws churched people who are looking for a better experience of the church they know. It is part of the reason why the greatest number of new members to the UCC (upwards of 75%) have come from the Roman Catholic or other neighboring churches. Its not Church Shopping its Church Swapping.
- The new learnings from vital churches involve strategies (‘going deeper and going outward”) to reach the unchurched and those who have left the traditional church. Revitalization (evolving new practices and patterns of being and doing) and Turnaround (letting the old structure and way of behaving and believing die so that God’s Spirit can transform and recreate a whole new church) have become the new Reformation and Revival (and hope) of the church.
- Thriving, emerging, birthing churches understand the need to honestly and clearly discern the answer to three crucial questions:
- Who are we (our skills, assets, character, gifts, and historical trends and DNA)?
- Who is our neighbor (around the community and commuter radius and around the world)? What are their burdens, dreams, longings and strivings, Spiritual needs, challenges, fears, struggles?
- And given the answer to the first two questions; What is God uniquely Calling us to become and to do in this current time and place?
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