When I’ve been around denominational meetings and big picture think-tank type settings lately, I’ve left such gatherings sad more than anything. Sad not because the food was bad or the company was boring or even because I’d rather be somewhere else, but because it seemed the church (universal) is more divided than ever, focused on things that don’t seem to matter to anyone other than those who are on the inside, and focused more on saving traditions than fulfilling its mission.
It’s painful to be a part of and observe and I’m usually not one to bring such a topic up because I like to focus on what is working not what is failing. Yet, the truth remains: there’s no mistake that the mainline church is in transition, if you want to use positive language, and dying if you want to be negative.
In my tradition, the Baptist church, attention and participation in associational meetings is down, especially by anyone under 65. (It’s hard enough to get people to come and participate in a local church activity much less an associational event). No one really cares, as much as they did back in 1950, and often those with the time to attend programing meetings reflect the perspective of a generation long past.
I know that such a statement is nothing revolutionary to those of us who have committed our lives to the church and care about it in vocational and personal ways: we experience this tension every Sunday. I know such a statement is what best-seller books in the world of Christian publishing are all about. Leaders who can articulate a clear vision of what the future might hold or how to spin the situation in hopeful ways are authors that we all know about: Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Adam Hamilton, to just name a few.
But, as a friend of mine who doesn’t attend my church, but occasionally attends hers, sat in my living room today and said to me: “You know attending church is really old news. It’s just not something people think of doing first on Sundays anymore” I actually agreed with her.
Because this is true, we, as church leaders need to pay attention. We need to stop spinning our wheels on denominational reports that just file data in some tall office building somewhere, Bible studies that don’t speak to the questions where most are, and worship services that don’t speak a fresh word of God every time they begin. (If we refuse to change, I really wonder why some of our churches wouldn’t be better off closing their doors and giving the money they make from selling their property to a good cause rather than just doing business as usual).
To begin a discussion like this is also dangerous, I know, because it assumes I have answers as to what is next; while I’m the first to admit, I’m still trying to figure things out myself.
But, what I do know is that I simply am not interested in activities that take up my time anymore that are based on expectations of keeping the same old conversations going.
Conversations like supporting women in ministry– we are here, we are as good at our jobs as our male colleagues, and it really shouldn’t be an issue anymore.
Conversations like can gay and lesbian members be welcomed in the church– yes, they can, churches like Washington Plaza say, come home and worship with us any Sunday at 11 am.
Conversations like why do young people not like to come to our church– they’ll come if you invite them regardless of their marital or the childbearing status and seek to meet their needs the same as you would a middle-aged parent with children or a shut-in.
Conversations like why are ministers leaving the church– they are leaving the church, especially, the young ones, because they are frustrated with having to live out their spirituality in dead communities when they can find the non-stifling presence of the Spirit of God alive and well outside of the church’s four walls.
I love to be a part of imaginative conversations with hard-working, passionate leaders who take their faith seriously and who are willing to see the church as a relevant place of community and service– not just another institution to maintain. I love to try new ideas in my local ministry context, even if they aren’t approved or supported by my denominational offices. I’m loving trying to figure out how to be a pastor in a unique community in Reston where there is absolutely NO WAY that the same old, same old would ever work.
Want to keep talking about these things? Know you have a conversation partner with this pastor. My hope for the next year is to continue to meet more of you out there who are thinking similar things with the hope that something new is coming soon and its an exciting time to be a part of ushering it in!