Making a space

There is no doubt about it. Intergenerational ministry is difficult. It is hard for a congregation to realize that their church was formed in the fifties, and so the culture of the congregation caters to people who were born in that era. And most young adults–even though many of them love the historic spiritual traditions–are not able to jump into a time machine and go back to a time when our church culture made sense.

We don’t understand the world of women’s circles that elect officers. We don’t know what these special offerings go to. The church uses words all the time that are not even in our dictionary: vestibule, fellowship, and per capita.

At an event that I went to recently, I said that a lot of churches won’t be around in the next twenty years if they don’t begin doing something to reach the next generation (I base this on the fact that the average age of our members is 50-something, and the average life span is 70-something). Later that day, I was told by the Executive Presbyter that many churches don’t have twenty years. Because of the dwindling energy level, it’s more like five to seven.

In other words, it’s crisis time for many of our congregations.

So, the church-at-large can vigorously do two things: (1) learn to make space for a new generation to grow up in our congregations (which is what a lot of my writing is about) and (2) plant new churches. Both of them will be extremely important in order for us to engage a new generation.

Unfortunately, I’m realizing how difficult it is for some of our denominations to imagine new church developments. The same Executive Presbyter explained that struggling churches will often take in immigrant congregations and allow them to use their space and rent their sanctuary. But, the same struggling congregation will not allow a young new church development use their space. That, of course, puts young NCDs at a terrible disadvantage.

I understand the resistance. The struggling congregation can’t understand why the new church can’t just become a part of the existing congregation (EC). They don’t want the competition, or they don’t want to lose the very few young adults who are attending the existing church to the NCD. I’m sure there might even be some jealousy, that these young upstarts can attract the demographic that the EC has been trying to reach for years.

And yet, this is a crisis time in our denominations. And what does it say when the local theater or elementary school is more willing to rent out space than our own congregations? Shouldn’t struggling churches be excited to support a new ministry?

We don’t have much time left and we have a whole lot of pastors who want to start congregations. (There are at least five pastors in our Presbytery alone, but we’re getting ready to tie up all of our assets into a camp, so NCDs will be unlikely for 30 another years. But that’s another story.) So we need to make a way. Any way for the young upstarts.  

Photo is by impastorrick


9 thoughts on “Making a space

  1. I agree with you. I serve a congregation with this very problem. And yet, my struggle is the assumptions that we make about the various generations. I’m a young pastor who was not around in the 50s and don’t really understand the church then — but they also don’t understand me and my generation. Instead, we make assumptions about each other. I wonder how we can engage in conversation about what it is that meets all of our needs.

  2. You’re right, because underlying the assumptions and cultural trappings, we’re all human. We have longings, passions, desires. We have a common faith. It would be wonderful if we could begin to speak, and listen to each other across the generations.

    Our whole nation is learning to do this–in business, politics, non-profits. Institutions and movements that want to negotiate the great generational divide have become fluent in these conversations.

    Now, we need to.

    Mainlines did not do so well during the last major cultural shift (when the Boomers came of age). I’m hoping that we will do better during this one. If we do, the Millennial generation is huge (much bigger than the Boomers), and this could be a very fruitful time for us.

  3. Carol,

    In the case of my presbytery, your two points above overlap. We not only need to make room for young adults in our churches, but in our presbyteries… I imagine young adult pastors and elders might be willing to try NCD out of the institutional box.

    About a year ago, my current presbytery announced plans for a NCD… but then my head nearly exploded when the price tag on the property alone was $2-3 million. Why do we need MILLIONS of dollars to plant a church? It’s old school thinking based on a model that no longer works.

    One part of the vision for my own congregation is to one day plant a church. I’d have no problem starting in a Chic-Fil-A (already available on Sunday!!) or a coffeeshop. That’s where I’m trying to get my folks to hang out now for Bible study and discipleship…. “out there” instead of “in here.”

    The day the presbytery voted on raising the millions for the NCD, I stood up at spoke passionately about alternative models for church planting. From the look on people’s faces, I was describing something from another planet.

    But, there are signs of life and a willingness to learn and change… so I remain hopeful!

  4. Come to Pittsburgh. We are not perfect–our New Church Developments are mostly populated by 20somethings, but we have at least two successful ones, Open Door, which I attend, and Hot Metal Bridge, which is Methodist/Presbyterian. The Pittsburgh Presbytery has a person in charge of NCD, Vera White, who is forward thinking and wonderful.


  5. Carol,

    I think that your passion for church growth is fantastic. My Episcopal diocese is also having a number-crunch time, and I am hoping that they invest in the youth and immigrants. Our church basically has a church within a church; a large group of south Asian immigrants light up our congregation every 9am service.

    How do Presbyterians do work with minority groups? I wonder if they are also an untapped group of people who would love to hear the Gospel.

  6. Carol,
    I would love nothing more than to be a part of a church plant. I am working towards that now. I could care less what denomination I am part of. I am tired of the denominational trappings lead folks on like a carrot. I know so many amazing people that desire to do new churches. We got these damn rules. I say when are we going to get some balls/ovaries and really live a life of faith in the adventure of putting it all out there in the name of faith.
    Penn from Penn & Teller says if you believe something that is a matter of life & death and are not dying to share it with others you are an a-hole.
    We are tired of waiting and are looking to bail. Many of us have left already. With infighting about issues that are deeply held by some and the utter disregard to welcome us to the table as equals what is there left for us to stick around.
    It is an abusive situation and the denomination is so worried about dying it is dead. I know there are many bright spots out there. Why not return to the grass roots and liquefy the denominational offices and close the dead/dying churches, liquidate the property and invest in new dynamic models of ministry.
    If it is retirement and money people are worried about then give it to them, clear them out and let the light shine.
    I held hope at one point for the denomination. I want to be proven wrong. The system is utterly broken and abusive. It is taking great people and binding them to a system rather than liberating them in the radical movement of the Spirit and being Christ to this world. We stay insignificant because we are afraid to die. How effective can we be if we hold on to death. “Death where is thy sting?” Who do we really serve?

    I apologize if this sounds angry and hurtful. I am angry and hurt. I have a deep love for the denomination and the wonderful people she serves. I hate to her put on an ice burg and set adrift.

  7. adhunt,

    We do okay with immigrant churches. Often they will form, then come to the Presbytery (that’s a local governing body, that includes a varying number of churches) for support. We help support them, and they often struggle financially.

    I recently heard Joan Gray (our former moderator, which is a national office and figurehead) say that older congregations should host immigrant congregations, because they have children. And older congregations are missing children so badly.

    We have a really interesting thing happening with our Korean churches. The Korean Presbyterian Church is stronger than the church in the US. And there are a lot of Korean American Presbyterian Churches. In our church, we are having a lot of growth with 2nd generation Korean young adults.

    David (up there in the comments) has the same thing happening at his church. So, I keep wondering if this is a broader trend. Our Korean congregations tend to be conservative, and less willing for women to be in leadership. But their sons and daughters, who grew up in the US, don’t always agree with the Korean PC that they grew up in, so they migrate to more progressive congregations.

    It will be interesting to see what happens. I do know that we are really blessed to have wonderful Koreans in our congregation.


    Oh no! I hope being up there at HQ doesn’t make you too jaded.

    I actually have a hard time remembering that the PCUSA’s dying. I’ve always been a part of growing congregations. Those shiny places. I realize its crisis time, but I have great hope…

  8. robert,

    You’re so right. Sticker shock is a huge problem. Whenever I mention NCDs here, I often hear, “It takes 500k to launch a new church.” Which might be true. But to grow a new church, from a seed, it just doesn’t cost as much.

    We get too afraid of those numbers and we make it impossible.

    suzi w,

    Your Presbytery and Vera White are super stars! Seriously, it’s amazing what y’all are doing there.

  9. The crazy thing to me is the way our Presbytery (DC) is selling off churches that could be used for NCDs. We will never get that land back for the price we got when we sold it off. Granted, a lot of congregations don’t want to watch someone come and grow what they couldn’t grow. But our Presbytery leadership (staff, clergy and elders) need to tell them that they had their chance, now we’re going to give someone else a chance.

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