Monday, August 14, 2006

Renewing the Church for the Next Generation

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.

13 comments:

David said...

Hey Andy,

As one of the 30-somethings who are "staying away in droves" from the church these days, I can tell you that the reason I hear most from my fellow drovians is "hypocrisy." And while I recognize that individual congregations (and especially individual people within individual congregations) are really terrific at living out their calling with honesty, integrity, and accountability, I think the fatal germ in the body of Christ is the need to "save face."

When the public face of the church (with all of its thousands of denominations and sects) is no longer one of self-righteous legislative efforts, but rather of the real God-work of vulnerable servant leadership, the droves will start knocking on your doors again.

The question is, will the church be ready for us?

EyeRytStuf said...

According to m-w.com, "drove" comes from Old & Middle English words meaning "to drive", and can mean either "a group of animals driven or moving in a body" or "a large number: crowd--usually used in plural, especially with 'in'"

As a 30-something, I'll have to get back to you on the rest of the post when I have time to digest it.

Anonymous said...

David, I need some help with what you mean by hypocrisy. I've been in the church all of my 60+ years and I have seen every kind of human being imaginable, sinners all, who try, who confess, who serve, who fail, who pray and try again. What's hypocritical about that? JB

David said...

J.B., it'll be hard for you not take this the wrong way, but... that's exactly the point. "Church people" are often so clueless about the image they portray to outsiders.

I'm sure that you, and probably most of the people in your circle of fellowship, go to great lengths to maintain accountability and integrity. But outsiders (by definition) don't get to see those struggles; they just see the (often uninvited and unwelcome) effect the church has on their communities and their lives. And so the church as a whole, at least in the eyes of the "droves," is more concerned with propriety (rule obeying) than with intimacy (heart touching), and more intent on conversion (pew filling) than on evangelism (life changing).

Is that clearer?

Steve C said...

Good thoughts, Andy. Before reading your blog, I happened to be visiting with a person involved in campus ministry with a non-denominational group. He said that they think of themselves as a church. I asked him what was driving their success (Should I have asked what was "droving" their success?) His answer could have been stated in your words: relationship, unity, and authenticity. The only surprising thing in all this is that it somehow requires a change in the culture of the Church. Relationship, unity, and authenticity sound like the way Jesus tried to make it happen. Where did we get lost?

Anonymous said...

For David - Unfortunately, the only way to find the church people who are authentic, who work for justice and peace, and who try to show God's love to those who need it most is to get involved in a church. Because these people do not make headlines, do not broadcast their good deeds, and do not force their theology on others. I guess it's sort of a catch-22 - You have opted out of the church because you think those involved are hypocrits but the only way to find those church people who aren't hypocrits is to be an active part of the mission and outreach that churches perform. I wish that you could find a church family that does the "real God-work of vulnerable servant leadership". Believe me, they are out there. cb

Larry b said...

FWIW, I like the approach my Pastor has been advocating. Any idea is in play as long as it is intentional about being conducted as ministry and not just another activity. Maybe not a big idea, but it seems to work.

For example we just added a new life center and one of the first programs placed in it was a basketball league for youth. Rather than making it just another place to play basketball, the specific focus was intentionally inviting those outside the church to participate, and intentionally ministering to everyone during the program. The coach's spent time every practice talking to the kids about their spiritual life, (some kids had never been to church, so it was "very basic theology"), there were prayers at every game, and a scripture reading and meditation at half time. Since some of the surrounding neighborhood is poor, we offered scholarships to help kids participate. There was also an emphasis on positive ideals like teamwork, participation, respect etc. so that it's differentiated from a "secular" basketball game.

One family actually joined the church as a result of the program, and others have had their opinion of the church changed slightly to the positive, even though some still hold that "religion is good and all, but just not for me".

I personally think that this supports that idea that churches have to be more intentional about the Gospel while they are reaching out to the community, yet show that they are real people like others who have a good time doing things they enjoy.

Another example I can think of was that the churches parking lot is a good spot for viewing July 4 fireworks for people surrounding the church. So instead of what might normally happen where chuch council will fret about a bunch of people being in the parking lot and all the liability from that, the church instead threw a barbecue, and had some music and prayer time prior to the fireworks welcoming any and all. It seems that more often than not, the council wins out, and the church would shut it's parking lot in situations like these.

So, in our pastor's view, it's not any big "program" for change, but rather changing the intent of any and all activity to be ministry and not just activity. If there isn't a ministry component, then we don't do it.

Larry B said...

David - you present an interesting conundrum. I wouldn't disagree that one certainly encounters hypocrisy in the church, the Bible is littered with stories of hypocritical people.

I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but what's surprising to me is the implicit point I sense that you are making. You seem to be implying that those who are staying away from the church are staying away because they are "more like" the vulnerable servant leaders you feel the church should strive for, and they don't want to bring themselves down by associating with those "dirty hypocritical" people inside the church.

CS Lewis struggles with this in his own writings and I happen to like what he ultimately concludes.

The truth for me is that while I sometimes fancy myself as being nice, at my core, I'm just as abominable as a highly visible hypocrite. I'm just better at hiding it than the guy who puts a public face on hypocrisy. So in the end, I'd much rather be in community with hypocrites who at least are in the right ball park, than shut myself outside the community on the pretension that I'm better than that and need to reserve myself for the community where everybody is acting in the ideal of servanthood.

Sure I'll suffer hurt, disappointment and outrage at my fellow church members actions, but that's irrelevant to my gift of Grace from God, which heals all those pains and brings me closet to God every time I go through trials.

So in a way those people do more to get me closer to God than a good and righteous person can.

Just my thoughts and perhaps I totally misinterpreted your post. If so I apologize up front. And I realize it doesn't solve the issue of how to attract people back to the church - it's just an observation on my part.

Adam Caldwell said...

Andy...all of this talk of "emerging". Have you been reading too much McLaren lately?

Good thoughts. I now seek one of those churches that offers "vulnerable servanthood." If you have any suggestions, let me know.

Kansas Bob said...

I watched a local PBS show this week where a successful local Methodist pastor was interviewed and took calls from viewers. I was very impressed with this pastor and thought that he was a great representative of the body of Christ in our area. Here is the church's purpose statement:

"To build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians."

Through his answers and his testimony this pastor communicated a message of inclusiveness and acceptance. I think that this should be at the heart of church ... too often we make people feel that they are inferior and need to get their act together before they join us on Sunday mornings ... it is an issue of atmosphere.

About guitars, drums and technology ... this pastor's church does that to the max - welcome to the 21st century Andy :)

Adam Caldwell said...

Hmmmm....Bob wonder who that could be? (cough...sputter...ChurghOf theResurrection...cough...swallow...nudge...cough...snort...narf)

Kansas Bob said...

Between Andy B, Adam C and Adam H you all might just make a Methodist out of me yet :)

Richard said...

We certainly are suffering from a lack of incoming children and youths into our congregation which has made set-up for Sunday School very difficult.