In early February, twelve young Presbyterian pastors from all over the nation gathered around a table to discuss the future of the church. There was no website to advertise the gathering and no thread that had connected this group together previously. It was just an idea, but evidently an idea that hit a nerve. We bought tickets and boarded planes because we care about our church and because we have concerns about its future.
Our time together was inspiring. We quickly discovered that we share many of the same challenges and hopes related to the future of our churches. What follows is a brief description of many of our conclusions. This is offered as a waypoint for the church, however small. Our hope is that these conclusions enter the stream of a church that is “always reforming.”
The basic problem
To pastor a Presbyterian church in America today is to be invited into the belly of a large and complex clock. It’s a fascinating machine, a mesmerizing display of skillful mechanics and thoughtful design. As we tour the clock, we come across others strategically placed to oil the clock, or repair the clock, or refine the clock. We find our place in the clock and begin adding our own style to the symphony of cogs, shafts and springs. It’s an elegant machine – it really is –though not everyone agrees. The chief complaint is it doesn’t always keep very good time.
There is a problem in our churches. We have missed much of the simple act of following Jesus. The exponential complexity of our churches has curved our attention inward, obscuring our basic purpose. It’s also just plain hard to modify such a large machine after it’s set in motion. We attend to the machine too frequently without considering what the machine is for. We need to pay more attention to the time we’re actually telling. We need to refocus our efforts on simply following Jesus Christ.
Through our conversations, we were able to identify several common symptoms indicative of the problem described above.
Vision deficit. One of the most consistent concerns was a lack of clear purpose and direction within our churches. This isn’t just an organizational problem; it’s an identity problem. Few people can readily identify why their church exists. For those with a mission statement, phrases like ‘to transform a city’ or ‘to make disciples’ frequently appear, which end up sounding utopian and imprecise. The broad spectrum of programs and ministry areas precludes a unified vision. The church ends up offering many good things, but few great things. This relates to a second symptom.
Lukewarm allegiance. If there was something incomparably good about our churches, we would likely be enjoying a steady growth or at least stasis. But our churches are largely in decline. Children and grandchildren of long-tenured church families no longer want to continue attending. Younger church staff members admit they’re not especially comfortable inviting their friends to their churches. Few of us are bragging about our churches or talking about our churches at all. It’s as if our churches have become just another part of the landscape. We may similarly frequent the deli in our neighborhood. We’re familiar with it, and it’s not half bad. But it’s not where we take our friends to dinner.
Inflated self-perception. In spite of what we might hope, the church’s value is no longer self-evident in the West. We cannot simply insist that our clock is magnificent and assume that that is reason enough to win people over. We must pay closer attention to the time we’re telling. Many of our churches are still broadcasting success by attendance and budget, which is to point to the church’s inputs as signs of success. No other charitable organization does this. Other organizations carve out their place by proving their output – their impact. In Christendom the church was essentially unrivaled, proving the church’s impact was unnecessary. But we have entered a new age, where we must now learn how to live as a people in exile. This includes abandoning our old monopoly, and humbly entering the marketplace of beliefs alongside every other faith.
Proposed action items
Below are six ideas we believe can help refocus the trajectory of our church. These merely scratch the surface, but they’re examples of where positive change is already being made.
Trees, not sledgehammers. As a way of thinking about creating change, an image was offered in which the church institution was described as a slab of concrete. Bringing a sledgehammer to a slab of concrete certainly breaks up the slab, but does not win many friends. However, few complain if a tree grows beneath the slab and eventually pushes through. Both produce the same result but use very different means. Efforts to reform the church should come from effective, fruitful ministry rather than aggressive insistence. Changing established institutions needs at least the appearance of growing organically. This is a critiquing-by-creating approach.
Fringe experiments. It’s difficult to argue with the status quo if there’s no proven alternative. But many of us described small ministry experiments that found some success and eventually offered life back to the wider congregation. Groups were created to foster safe conversation for people estranged from the church. Some churchgoers raised their eyebrows, but after seeing these groups for themselves, changed their perspective and began supporting the groups. Worship services that were created outside the shape and format of standard services offered a fresh way of conceiving of worship in the church. A new campus in a multi-site church model pressed the entire congregation to become serious about evangelism if the new site was to succeed. These are successes in their own right, but the hope is that their relative fruitfulness will become a clarion call for change in the larger body.
Legacy projects. One of the urgent questions for mainline churches is how to pass along the faith to new generations. Many churches have responded by creating a new, segmented ministry effort toward younger generations. These are commendable efforts, but their longevity is typically limited to that generation. For something beyond a stopgap measure, we discussed the benefits of long-term ministry projects. The payoff for these projects does not necessarily become clear until the arrival of the next generation. An example was given of partnering with other churches to invest in a new church plant. Or such a project might be to seek reconciliation long after a congregation has been split. Generational divides are especially clear right now. Creating trans-generational projects can help minimize these differences.
Staff soul care. Very few of our churches offer any type of soul care for the entire staff. If our churches have missed much of the simple act of following Jesus, we agree that this would be a helpful corrective. Failing to inquire into staff members’ spiritual lives can be perceived as minimizing the importance of a spiritual life. A concerted attempt at staff-wide worship, prayer and/or discipleship could have a helpful re-centering effect. Caring for the souls of a staff could acknowledge that personal sanctification is not less important to ministry than professional development.
Reinvigorating worship practices. If aspects of our church services have become lukewarm, a complete overhaul may not be the best answer. There is room to reinvigorate worship practices instead of changing them. For example, if prayer time regularly sounds droning and hollow, it may need to be infused with conviction rather than replaced. Traditional church music may seem outdated from some congregants’ perspective, but if it is clearly worshipful music and presented with passion, the worship style may become secondary. Many of our worship practices are too time-tested to fall into boring ruts.
Empowering older members. Bringing essential younger generations into an established mainline church is a complex issue. One of the strategies frequently published, but practiced less often, is to “use who we have.” Many of our churches are aging. This is a strength, not a hindrance. In an age deluged by information, the distinction between information and wisdom is becoming more apparent. Information is now easy to find, but we still can’t Google wisdom. Because older adults are the primary bearers of wisdom, aging churches have a huge point of attraction, one that younger church plants lack. As much as possible, wherever possible, older adults need to be telling their personal stories. Design programs that enable this, create mentoring relationships that invite this or generate some other means to deliver this. Older adults are walking treasure troves of wisdom, and younger generations are searching for wisdom.
Facing the future
A clock that does not consistently keep good time will eventually lose the faith of the town in which it resides. People will simply stop paying attention altogether. We fear the church might be headed in precisely this direction, where the only ones who pay any attention to it are the people inside. That fabled city on a hill could one day become a village on a plain.
Our concern may be perceived as overwrought or even alarmist. After all, we are young; perhaps some will suggest that with time our perspective will mellow out. We humbly disagree. It’s not primarily the trouble within the church institution that bothers us; it’s the associated clouding of the Gospel. The world needs to hear the Gospel, to see it, to be touched by it. And since the church is God’s mysterious vessel for delivering and embodying this Good News, and since we find ourselves uniquely called to this peculiar institution, we see no reason to blunt our passion for speaking to the future of the church.
BRANDON GAIDE is the next generation minister at Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, and looks to be ordained this fall.