Over the weekend, Dad and I were keynote speakers for a Missouri Conference United Methodist Men Retreat. Since the retreat was located in southeast Missouri, however, it turned out to be a “St. Louis Area United Methodist Men Retreat” instead. No biggie. There were 70 men there - who were, by and large, a faithful bunch of typical Methodist Men, who joked a lot, sang a lot, ate a lot, and loved God a whole lot.
The average age was just about 60, and the youngest participant was nine. Since we were talking about “Renewing the Church for the Next Generation,” the attendees served as a living example of the issue at hand. The United Methodist Church does not have a “back door problem,” we have a “front door problem,” as Bishop Schnase frequently reminds us. It’s not that people are leaving the church in droves, it’s that they are not coming in in droves. (Anyone know what a drove is, exactly? Where can we get one?)
Anyway, one of the areas where we spent the most time this weekend was around “change.” But what we emphasized what not a change in worship style or technological savvy or the latest 40 day program or any of a whole mess of other gimmicks the church is likely to try. We tried to emphasize that the change called for is deeper and rougher and more profound than that. We are talking about no less than a change in the culture of the church itself, a new mindset when it comes to church, an emerging energy that emphasizes relationship, unity, and authenticity.
We were not talking about adding a guitar and drums and singing the latest Christian pop tune off the radio in worship every week.
We were not talking about throwing a bunch of the latest technology into the sanctuary with no idea about what exactly it will be used for.
We were not talking about buying the latest curriculum designed to appeal to young adults and starting a new Sunday School class with it.
People don’t come to church just to sing the latest song or see a nifty power-point show or read some author’s 12 easy steps to a better life. People come to church to encounter and be grasped by the living presence of God in the midst of a community of friends who share God’s love and grace unconditionally one with another. Last weekend, we were talking about radically reforming the culture of the church so that younger generations will experience that kind of transforming encounter when they come to church.
And furthermore, we talked about ways the church needs to communicate with younger generations to let them know that such an encounter is even possible in a church. There are many who yearn for such an encounter, but for one reason or another, would never set foot inside a church in order to discover it. As such, we talked about new ways of allowing the church to “leave the building” and step into the world, as it has always been called to do. Only now, since the world has changed so much in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the church isn’t sure how to make it happen.
One other thing we tried to emphasize was a shift in thinking from the church being in ministry “to,” “for,” or “with” young adults. Rather, the church needs to be thinking about the ministry of young adults. It is not as if “the church” and “young adults” are two separate groups, one of which (the church) is subject and one (young adults) the object of ministry. Young adults – like youth and children and retirees and everyone else – ARE the church. I think this may be the most difficult mindset to change.
I hope that we tilled some hard packed soil, and maybe even planted a few seeds over the weekend. In terms of renewing the church, I am excited about what is emerging. I sense a spirit of hope in the hearts of many people of faith, hope that is grounded in the mystery of God’s grace. We haven’t yet solved the church’s “front door problem” yet, but I get the idea that we are on the way.