Church for the 21st Century: Transforming Existing Congregations

I’ve been delving into the Church in the 21st Century subject for a few blog posts now. So, far I’ve set up the background, because we can’t imagine what a church will look like until we get an idea of what its participants and landscape will look like. I’ve sorted through things with a generational lens—especially looking toward younger generations.

I often get push-back when I look at things generationally. Many people feel old or irrelevant when we focus our attentions on younger adults. Often people will point out the burgeoning church in the retirement community. I know growth and wonderful ministry can happen with older adults, and I would never want to diminish that.

But, as I mention a lot on this blog, the average age of the PCUSA is over 60, and the average age of most denominational churches is almost 60. Older adults are not neglected in our churches. They are doing well. Our leadership is made up of older adults, and those who have most of the power are older. They are getting plenty of attention and voice. Most of our denominations are dedicated to them. It doesn’t hurt to shift our attentions every once in a while.

We’ve set the landscape: we looked at work, family structures, finances and ethnic make-up. Now, we need to ask, what sort of church would work in a new generation? What is our vision for the 21st Century? There is no one answer to this question, of course. It depends on each context, and there are all sorts of models out there. We’ll start with transforming existing congregations.

Some congregations will revive. I currently serve a church that was up for a vote to close its doors about 30 years ago. But they didn’t. Now they’re a healthy, growing congregation. We’re a regular church, for sure. With all sorts of regular church problems. But Western is a good guide for transformation. We’re very traditional, with pipe organ music and written liturgies. How did we turn around?

The older generation let go of power. They had an older generation of leaders who allowed younger leaders to take charge in significant ways. Without that key, the whole thing probably would not have worked, but the older generation gave over real power in pastoral leadership and committees (even while they were underwriting most of the budget). They didn’t just expect a younger generation to do everything their way. They even allowed a theological shift.

They focused their ministry outside of their doors. Western began to serve the homeless in their neighborhood. With Miriam’s Kitchen as well as other outreaches, the church began to look outside of its doors, and the community began to notice them.

A middle governing body I visited challenged each church to ask itself, “If your church closed tomorrow, what would your community miss the most?” If the church couldn’t answer that question, then they became committed to finding a ministry that meant something to their neighborhood. All sorts of things could come out of this–community gardens, arts programs, music support, feeding programs, or homeless shelters. Traditionally, churches have flourished in all of these areas.

They focused on a new generation. When a campus ministry at a nearby university was about to lose its funding, Western reached out and housed the ministry. This made them focus on the surrounding campuses and the needs of students around them. They didn’t focus on “young families,” but began their outreach to emerging generations much earlier—with college students, grad students, and singles. It was a loving investment that paid off, even in our transient D.C. culture. Now, the college students are starting careers. Some who are in careers are getting married. Some who are married are having children. But whatever a particular family looks like–whether it’s a nuclear family or an urban tribe–we try to make sure that all are welcome.


6 thoughts on “Church for the 21st Century: Transforming Existing Congregations

  1. I come at generational theory as a “student” of Strauss and Howe.

    Is S&H are correct the oldest of the Millennial Generation is just now hitting 25. They are a Civic Generation who will spend their adult years building up institutions. Imagine that these institutions could be new ones that they create from scratch or maybe they will be old ones that they reinvent and revitalize.

    I’d think that they key things that older leaders could do would be to in some way clear out space for the Millennials to do their building and remodeling.

  2. Pingback: SoMA blog

  3. Yes, yes, yes and yes! Older leadership structures letting go and passing the mantle of leadership to younger leaders is essential. Focus outside the church doors on the unique needs of the neighborhood is vital, as is ministry offered without expectation of financial gain to young adults. Thanks for sharing your thougthts.

  4. The older generations supported financially the birthing of future generations of Christians near the church. It is a blessing to hear. I wish more presbyteries both progressive and evangelical would intentionally encourage their aging congregations to entering into this dialogue and process.

    I wonder how we might get the older generations churches that are fear-filled about change, to sharing power and embracing change on a denominational level or at least presbytery-level?

  5. Carol,

    I’d like to send you a copy of my book, The Orphaned Generation: The Father’s Heart for Connecting Youth and Young Adults to Your Church.” If you’re interested, send me a mailing address and I’ll get it out to you.

    Here’s the second of two video previews of the book on youtube. It’ll help you understand the strategy of the book.


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