Church for the 21st Century: Family Structures

I’m working through the 5 questions for the Church for the 21c Committee. I’m chairing the committee, but these thoughts are my own. They don’t reflect the whole committee’s opinions, nor are they indicative of what the final paper will say. While answering “What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?” I’m focusing on a few of the cultural changes that have occurred in the last fifty years. We’ve talked about Work and Finances, now I’d like to look at Family Structures. Please join the conversation, and I will happily link your blog!

The magic formula for our congregations has been to reach out to young families, and our churches spend a great deal of effort hoping and praying that the next generation of young families will walk into our doors.

It has typically worked that way. When young adults found a career, got married, had kids, and “settled down,” then they found a church. And all of that used to take about six months after a man graduated from college or high school. (Okay, so I’m exaggerating here. But only slightly….) Now, our patterns have changed. Because of finances, employment, and choices, our family structures look different.

First, we have an ideal in our society that a person is (or ought to be) a financially independent adult at the age of 18. Even our sociological definition of adulthood is based on when a person gains financial independence. But, of course, the world has not worked that way for a long time. It is difficult to find gainful employment without a college education, and many men and women have to go into debt in order to earn that degree.

Second (and related), there are employment considerations. When a person graduates, there aren’t many jobs—particularly jobs that can pay off those student loans—so men and women entering adulthood often go into internships, temp work, or some other underemployment situation. They are the first to get laid-off, and often young workers don’t have any health insurance apart from their parents. The cost of housing is often based on two incomes. Many young men and women live with their parents well into their 20s.

What does this have to do with our family structures? Well, in our society, a person is expected that he or she will become financially secure before getting married, but it’s difficult to get married when it takes a great deal of financial instability (educational debt and internships) in order to establish a stable career and a place to live. Often people glorify this situation or place the blame on the emerging adult—they say that young adults are in their odyssey years or an extended adolescence. I think we’ve created a society where we don’t take care of our young workers.

Anyways… young men and women are caught in a trap. They can’t get married until they have financial security. And they often can’t attain financial security until they get married. As a result men and women are often scheming their next employment move, figuring out more schooling, going for their next internship, and this situation makes it difficult to make a commitment to a spouse or loved one. People are getting married later now, if they are getting married at all.

Finally, when it comes to family structure, there is more choice in a new generation. Though the societal expectation that men and women will get married and have children is strong, there is also a bit more freedom. Although it is difficult, a woman can have a career and financial stability without getting married. She doesn’t need to move from her father’s home to her husband’s home. There is room—small pockets in our country—where LGBTQ people can happily be with, live with, or marry their same-sex partner.

What does all of this have to do with our churches? Congregations are often set up to cater to the young family. Although this model is good, we will need to broaden our focus in order to reach out to younger people.

Are we welcoming to young singles? If a young couple is living together (this is often a financial necessity), do our churches welcome them? Is our church open to same-gender relationships? In what ways (verbally or nonberbally) do we communicate that our congregation is only for nuclear families?

What happens when a person walks into our sanctuary alone? Is church an isolating experience for them? Will they most likely sit alone and stare at the back of another person’s head? What does our seating look like? Does it invite a community feel?

Is there a social network for people who don’t have a spouse or children? Does the church think about where people will go for Thanksgiving or Easter dinners? Do we think about how a person might be celebrating Holy Days in their homes?

How much time and energy does church leadership put into attracting those who are single or students? How much time do we put into ministering to and with singles and students? How does the time that we put into ministering to and with younger adults compare with the time we minister to and with older adults?


Church for the 21st Century: Finances

This is the 2nd part of a series of posts that I’m doing as our denomination explores what it means to be a church for the 21st Century. Many denominations have been joining in, so please don’t feel left out if you’re not Presbyterian. I’m reflecting on the first question: What is your vision for the church in the 21st century? I encourage you to reflect on this question and I’ll be happy to link your blog.

As we think about a church for our century, most members of mainline denominations can look back at the Post World War II era as a time of abundance for their churches. We need to remember the things that have changed since those vital days of our congregational life. What has evolved since then?

We looked at our work. We also have finances, family structures, and racial ethnic make-up.

As we turn our attention to finances, I know that it’s a tricky subject. As we wade into it, I should make it clear that I’m not saying that this generation is worse off than other generations, but I am saying that our financial situation is different. And if we’re looking at the changes in the last 50 years, we have to look at some of those differences.

There are good things. More people go to college now. Home ownership rose. People can borrow money, which can give them some economic freedom. Lending to racial-ethnic minorities increased, which allowed many people of color to buy homes, get higher education, or have credit cards—many things that were only for the privileged fifty years ago. While kids used to get an orange for Christmas, our children get actual toys.

There are more difficult things. The chasm between the rich and the poor has grown.

While more people are getting higher educations, the cost of education has gone up and so many people are entering adulthood with a tremendous amount of unsecured debt (some say $37k).

The cost of housing has increased, especially in urban areas where people need to move for good jobs. Some of the housing issues have leveled off, which is a good thing for those who don’t own homes, but it causes more problems for those who bought at a high and find themselves underwater (they owe more than the house is worth), for Boomers who were counting on housing equity for their retirement, or for those who need to borrow against the equity of their homes. Because of the housing bubble bursting, I have friends who owe $650k on a house worth $150k.

While education debts increased, housing has been on a roller coaster ride, our salaries have maintained stagnant. In fact, with all of the layoffs happening, people are forced to pick up workloads and increase productivity, but they don’t have better incomes to show for it. Emerging adults who enter the workforce are expected to labor for free at internships (and increase their debt load even more) in order to make the connections they need to even get a job.

It often takes two incomes to maintain a household, but we still have a societal expectation that a person needs to be financially independent before he or she gets married.

So we all know that it’s a difficult economy. What does all of this have to do with the church? Sometimes we mirror the worst of our culture, and other times we are completely ambivalent to it.

First, the gap between the rich and poor is in our denomination. We have huge economic disparities among our clergy. For the PCUSA, in one geographic area, it’s not difficult to find a highly educated pastor with years of experience, laboring next to another pastor with the same education and experience—one is on food stamps while the other is making a very healthy six-figures. Even on the same staff, we can have one clergy person who is making a top salary in our denomination and another who does not have health insurance. Often times a Head of Staff make more than double what his or her Associate makes.

Some will say that the inequities are due to talent and abilities. But when we look at the gender and color breakdowns, it’s pretty clear that they also have to with whether or not you’re a white guy with nice teeth.

Second, we ask money for things that people don’t always care about. One major cultural shift between the “Builders” and emerging generations is that the Builders tend to put resources into buildings (thus the name). Need a new pipe organ? It’s going to cost a million dollars? No problem.

In a new generation, many people question how we spend our money. It’s not a given that we will want to set aside 10% of our income in order to make sure that the huge edifice surrounding us will stay maintained for the next twenty years. People who care deeply about the church may not care much about the bricks and mortar. They might be aggravated by the environmental inefficiencies of our sanctuaries.

Their ecclesial concerns reflect their personal concerns. Do people have enough to eat? Do they have shelter? Are we reaching out to those who aren’t quite making it in our communities?

When we’re drowning in debt, it’s hard to go to church. Our congregations often mirror the financial anxiety or oblivious denial that exists around money in our culture, so it’s often easier to not attend. I know that sounds wrong. But before we start pointing fingers and wagging our heads at a new generation, we might want to ask ourselves why. And we might need to ask some difficult questions and clean up our own houses before we fault a new generation.

What do the salaries look like in our church staffs? Do the inequities reflect the worst of our culture or the best? Do people have medical care and a way to support themselves when they are too old to work?

What does our budget look like? Has our building gotten too large for its purpose and use? Are we sinking too much money into an environmentally inefficient space?

Are our money, space, and staff resources going into helping the needs of the community? Are we speaking out for the poor, the hungry and the homeless in our writing and preaching?

Do we care for the least among us? Do we expect people to be financially stable in order to attend our churches? In what ways to we communicate that they should be part of the upper-middle-class in order to be a part of us?

The Church for the 21st Century

So, I’m heading up a national Presbyterian committee which is studying the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century. We’re asking people five questions. I’ll answer them here (although it’s going to take several posts…), and if you’d like to answer them, please let me know and I’ll link your blog! We’d also appreciate feedback emailed to us at 21cchurch (at) gmail (dot) com.

If you’re not Presbyterian, please forgive the insider talk. I’ll try to translate as much as possible, but since many Mainline denominations are in the same situation, some of the information applies across the board.

What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?

It’s clear that God is doing a new thing in our midst, and in this important time of discernment, we can become open to what and who God is calling us to become. In the PC(USA), the average age of our membership is over 60 and the median Sunday morning attendance is about 70. Clearly, a lot of things will be changing in the next 20 years. My hope is that many churches will continue to exist in health. Just because a church is small, does not mean that it’s dying or that it’s ill. Often it simply means that it’s small.

The problem comes if that church is not able to reach out to a new generation or to its neighbors. If that happens, then churches will come to the end of their life spans. Their assets will become available and we will use them to plant new congregations that are able to tell the good news in our particular time and place. From time to time, I hear, “We’re closing churches! Why would we start new ones? We can’t keep the ones we have going!”

It is true that we are closing churches, but that is the reason to start new congregations. Most of our churches have been geared toward the cultural context of the post-World War II generation. The Builders who put a great deal of energy and hard work into establishing so many of our civic institutions have been the heartbeat of our congregations. As a result, we have many customs that have conformed to this great generation that may not translate well in a new generation. What are they? Well, there’s more than four, but I’ll just list the top ones that come to mind and I’ll concentrate on the first one in this post.

1) Work
2) Finances
3) Family Structures
4) Racial ethnic makeup

As we live faithfully in a new century, we can take the work of a new generation into consideration. One radical shift that has occurred in the last 60 years is that more women have entered the workforce. At first, a wife working was considered an extravagant “additional income,” but with the cost of housing and education going up, middle class families quickly found that two incomes became a necessity.

Another thing that changed in those 60 years was the kind of work that we do. Our occupations moved from agriculture and industry to retail, service, and tech jobs. Now the majority of young adults work retail positions and they’re technologically wired.

How does this affect how we do church? Well, our congregations have been thriving with a huge volunteer force, made up largely of women. We can all think of women who have made our church communities their part-time job. We have had strong women’s circles, women coordinating the potlucks, and women keeping our Christian Education going. What will we do now that this massive volunteer force will no longer be available? Will we be able to maintain the way that we do church?

Many people have pleaded for a shift from volunteerism to discipleship. This is an important distinction, and I think it has as much to do with the church as it does with the disciple. Instead of asking people to show up for a committee meeting so that we can shoot down any new ideas and affirm that we should do everything exactly the same way that we did it last week, we can realize the importance of their time. Value it. Make sure that each hour we ask of people is spent in meaningful ways. The disciples were asked to give up their lives in order follow the way of Jesus, and to change the world. Do we expect that people will change the world? Or are we looking for them to rubber stamp our customs?

Not only is time valuable, but our availability might be different as well. It no longer takes 40 hours to keep a household afloat. It now takes 80, or even 100. And a new generation works retail, service and tech jobs, which means we don’t usually fit into the traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday workweek. If we’re working retail, it’s almost impossible to get Sundays off (unless you’re in management). In other jobs, we have negotiated flexible schedules in order to balance work and family, but that often means that we are on duty on Sunday. Even if a person is highly committed to church, he or she just may not have the ability to attend at 11:00 am on Sunday morning (a time that was convenient for farmers), and so worship, the heart of what we do, becomes difficult for many.

So as we envision a church for the 21st century, we can ask ourselves the following questions:

What sort of work do young adults do in our community?

Do we ask people to give up their time for meaningful work? Do we ask them to engage in committee work where they have no creative freedom to change things? Do we have an important mission in our communities? Are we doing enough to change the world? Are we working to feed the homeless or provide shelter for the needy?

Does the time of our service make sense in our community? Is it even possible for younger generations to attend our church?