I work at a church.
And… I read comic books. Lots of them.
My wife often rolls her eyes at me, as I delve into the latest adventure of Batman, Superman or the Green Lantern.
Did I also mention that I’m 31 years old?
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Why is a 31-year-old man spending his precious free time reading stuff intended for kids? What you might not know is that I am actually on the lower end of the comic-reading spectrum. In fact, the average comic reader in the United States is over the age of 35, with 1 in 4 readers being over the age of 65. Think about that for a second. This means that for the average comic book store, most of their business (which most people in the country associate as kid’s stuff) is reliant on an older, mature, adult readership.
Comics publishers, knowing this about the age of its readership, have responded in fashion over the last 20 years, publishing books with grittier subtexts, focusing on tighter plotting and pacing, and drawing books that appeal to a more “adult” sensibility and visual language. And yet, for all its efforts, comic book sales have declined and continue to decline. As the average age of readers continues to increase year by year, so do the numbers of those dropping out of the comic-buying marketplace completely as companies struggle to pick up newer, younger readers.
As I’ve reflected on the crises experienced by the comic book industry over the last 30 years, I’ve become aware that I too work in an “industry” that is supposedly in crisis: the mainline church. Membership is both declining and aging, adult baptisms are down and congregations are closing their doors. From 2011-2012, the PC(USA) lost more than 100,000 members and 204 member congregations. Like the major comic book publishers, some churches have rallied together to stem the tides. The PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities Initiative has focused on planting new churches meant to reach out to younger people and immigrant communities. Existing churches have refocused their missions around a “missional” model, looking to participate in God’s mission in the world outside of the four walls of the church.
And yet, as churches continue to wrestle with what it means to live into this new paradigm, it is very easy to get caught up in the “assumption” game of ministry. Like many who assume the average comic book reader is a kid, we in the church make many assumptions about ministry and church. We assume that adopting a contemporary musical worship style will attract younger worshipers. We assume that starting program “A” will draw in new mothers, or that offering service “D” will give notice to the new immigrant communities in our midst. Subsequently, we get disappointed or frustrated when they don’t immediately take what we offer.
One of the things I get to do as a staff member at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church is take part in leading a summer Bible study with our college students. One evening, one of our students asked if we could sing a few songs before each study. So, I brought out my guitar, ready to sing the latest and greatest modern worship chorus. What came out of the students’ mouths next almost made my draw drop to the floor:
Student 1: “Actually, can we sing some hymns?”
Student 2: “Yeah, do you know any hymns we can sing?”
Needless to say, I was shocked. I was under the assumption that these young people wanted to sing modern worship choruses (which is of course what young people, want right?), and here they were telling me they wanted to sing traditional hymns! And yet, if I was not invited to be in their midst, if I wasn’t open to listening, I would never have known that the kids God was calling me to minister to were hungry for a more “traditional” diet of worship music.
As the church continues to face the stark realities of its own decline in the United States, I wonder sometimes if we are prepared to face the fact that we might have to let go of some of our pre-conceived notions about what outreach, evangelism and ministry look like. Are we willing to let go of “the way things have always been”? Are we ready to stop making assumptions about what the hurting people in our world want or need? Are we willing to put a pause button on programs that we assume will get people in the door and start actively listening to the people that God is putting right in front of our faces? Friends, God is sowing the seeds of the Kingdom in places, people and areas that we can only dream of. It’s time to stop working out of our own strength and time to start paying attention to the work God is already doing in our midst.
JOSHUA YOUNG serves as the director of contemporary worship at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church where he is also an Inquirer under care for ordination. He is married to Rachel, who regularly contribute to this blog and also serves on staff at Clear Lake Pres.
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