Yet, it isn’t happening and the bleeding goes on.
In that process we have squandered not only considerable financial resources and mental energy but perhaps the most critical asset of time. Feel-good theology and spiritual awareness are most certainly parts of our Christian lives together. However, in a society that is literally changing before our eyes, they are hardly panaceas for survival. Spiritual renewal or transformation of the existing base in the majority of our congregations will not effectively address the undeniable challenge that faces the denomination — aging.
This reality has been staring us in the face and we seem to have given it no more than token (if any) attention. The simple fact is that instead of trying to transform our sagging institutional base we should in actuality be developing a strategy, which all can readily buy into, for effective re-generation. Laity and clergy alike must become convinced and imbued with a desire to encourage and purposefully seek a vibrant, youthful new underpinning for their congregations. This is a battle in our congregations for survival in most cases, and the weaponry for such a challenging confrontation is a new mind set, one which will accommodate the admission, acceptance, and inclusion of a new generation of worshipers — a generation that possesses a totally different set of needs, and if the truth be known, of values, than their aging fellow members. Congregations face a social phenomenon that may be perceived to be at odds with the present, fading community and congregational infrastructure. Yet it’s here, and it is in fact the future, like it or not.
The major challenge then is a call for inter-generational compatibility, which poses in many cases a stunning blow to most established congregations. Yet reality calls us to accept and acknowledge that new blood is vital to our denominational future.
As we reflect on our storied history we cannot deny that our glory days followed World War II, as a generation of GIs returned from foreign fields and reentered the established lives of congregations across the nation and brought their families, new focus, energy, vigor, and leadership. The diadem was passed to a new generation many of whom were eager to serve Christ and put the long agony and hurt of war behind them. But, the real key here is that the older, established generation openly and willingly accepted the insurgence of this new, young lifeblood and the churches grew and flourished — object lesson?
Now many of those so accepted face the need to embrace a new generation of potential believers who can hold out the hope of a new period of glory for the PC(USA).
However, this generational change brings with it new challenges. In many cases churches are threatened and confronted with a culture that for many members is hard to accept, perhaps not “conventional” in some eyes. New worship preferences, new music, new dress and, in many cases, new lifestyles are difficult to wrap one’s mind around. Yet the future knocks and the old must make room for it and lend cognizance to its own inevitable mortality.
History can repeat itself and if we are determined to move our denomination prayerfully and confidently into the heart of the 21st century and beyond we must adopt the fact that re-generating our congregations holds the key to our denominational future.
Change has become a new watchword. Change is inevitable. Change we must. Without new genes to carry on the line the body cannot possibly survive and reach out to or experience a new series of “glory days.” Age is our enemy and time follows close on its heels. Our churches are old, not only in brick and mortar veneration but in physical reality. We are in serious … need of an age rejuvenation and re-generation. Reinfusing the mature establishment with a new spiritual awakening will not enhance or perpetuate congregational posterity. It’s not too late to capture this new generation for Christ but we have to learn that to do so we must change old modes and accommodate ways and means that are appealing to a new generation who seek Christ, perhaps in styles foreign to us. The churches that have alertly acknowledged and accepted this reality are growing and thriving. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “The youth of a nation are trustees of posterity.” How true.
Youthful re-generation holds the key to the irrepressible aging of our congregations and our denomination. Thus the answer is not attempting to induce our existing members to accept spiritual reinvigoration, though in some cases it might be helpful. Clearly we should encourage and lead through strategies that assist our churches in attracting new, young congregants, preferably with families, who can provide to them new leadership and vitality that will aid in rebuilding their congregational infrastructure. Congregations then extend and prayerfully perpetuate their longevity, also breathing new life into the denomination itself.
Re-generation is not just a new “buzz” word; it is a reality, quite possibly a bitter truth, that we must face up to, accept and implement, or we will continue on our slippery slope to geriatric extinction or perhaps at best “tall steeple isolation.”
James Babcock is an elder at First Church in Bozeman, Mont.