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.

Church in the 21st Century: Ethnic Makeup

I was at a Presbyterian celebration, when I heard a familiar sound piercing the air: bagpipes. And then, just as thunder and lightening travel together, I saw a sight that has also become very commonplace since I’ve become Presbyterian: men in kilts. I probably don’t have to tell you the color of those men. We all know.

During many Presbyterian festivities, we roll out the men in kilts. It’s a celebration of our roots, an acknowledgement of where we came from.

It can also be rather odd. I know of Presbyterian pastors who preach with a slight Scottish brogue—when they’re not from Scotland. I guess they have the idea that’s what a good Presbyterian preacher is supposed to sound like.

When I first became Presbyterian, I was often asked what my tartan pattern was. I don’t have a tartan pattern, so that question thoroughly confused me. When I finally understood what people were asking, it made me feel out of place, like I didn’t quite belong in my new denomination. As the years went on, I would hear the ethnic/Presbyterian jokes. For example, any time that glitter is being hoarded in the Sunday school classrooms like it’s as valuable as gold dust, I’m reminded that we’re penny-pinchers. We’re Scottish, after all.

In actuality, I can’t think of more than ten Scottish church members. And that’s counting all three churches that I pastored. We have roots in Scotland. But we also have roots in Korea. And we have some roots in the Global South. My friend Tony Aja reminds me that “Today, there are more Presbyterians in Mexico and Guatemala than there are in the US. There are more Presbyterians in Korea than there are in the rest of the world.”

Now why would I bring this up? Is it to be a kill-joy? Why would I care about a denomination celebrating its history? Do I have something against the Scottish? Do I have something against white men? Of course not. It’s just that we need to understand the message that we are giving to a new generation when we portray our denomination as purely Scottish. We think of this. When we choose to lift up one racial ethnic group over and above others, we are giving a clear message to a new generation: You don’t belong here.

You see, after the Hart Cellar Act of 1965, we began to welcome new immigration from non-European nations. This population increase was great for the growth of our economy in the past, and it will be great for our economy in the future. It’s added an incredible richness to our cultural and religious landscape. And it means that white people will be the minority in my daughter’s generation.

That doesn’t bode well for a denomination that’s 94% white. Things could change though. This could also be an extremely important opportunity for us as a denomination. After all, immigrant congregations are growing the fastest in our denomination.

But I have to say… right now… we’re kind of blowing it. How? What are we doing wrong? How could we fix it?

First, we need to take a good look at our ordination exams and wipe out the cultural bias.

What cultural bias? Well, I’m a white woman who made solid grades in seminary, and I failed one exam four three times (I changed this… upon reflection, I took it four times, but passed the last time). I don’t think I’ve ever failed an exam in my life. As I was preparing, people kept saying, “Write this for a 70-year-old Presbyterian. How would she read this?” That was a big enough cultural hurdle for me to fumble all over. I can’t imagine if I was a smart Latina trying to write the answers.

As we see from this report, non-white candidates have a much more difficult time getting through the ordination exams.

The PCC is deeply concerned that pass rates of racial-ethnic candidates on the ordination examinations are significantly lower than those of white candidates. Pass rates of white candidates in recent years on each examination have ranged between 65% and 77%. Pass rates of other candidates have averaged between 27-54%.

Second, we can to find a way to welcome Reformed pastors who have immigrated to our country. Often a Presbyterian minister has gone through all of the necessary steps to complete the ordination process in his or her own country. Then, when he or she seeks to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we do not allow that person to be a minister in full standing. Why? It’s because our ordination standards are different. For instance, we require a Master’s degree while another country might require an undergraduate degree. (It seems to me that four years of preparation is better than three.) Or we require Greek and Hebrew, while another country does not. (How many pastors do you know who are still using their Greek and Hebrew skills?)

Third, we can begin to welcome the immigrant communities already in our midst. I have heard an estimate that if we opened our arms to the immigrant communities that have already formed around us—the ones that already call themselves Presbyterian—we would have one million new members in our denomination.

Fourth, we can pay attention to the important shifts occurring with second- or third-generation immigrants. Right now, our progressive congregation is welcoming many wonderful second-generation Korean Presbyterians. We also see amazing female Korean clergy in our denominations. The needs and gifts of second/third generation immigrants are often different from their parents. How can we encourage their voices and learn from them?

Our country is seeing an incredible shift in ethnic makeup, as a new majority emerges. If we can embrace those changes, we can be ready for a vital church for generations to come.

If Walls Could Talk

Slowing down for a stoplight on a main street in Bethesda, Maryland, I immediately see the new signs for St. Luke’s Episcopal Church where David Wacaster serves as the Assistant Rector. While driving into the parking lot, I hear the loud buzzing of renovation. The smell of sawdust lingers in the brisk air as I greet my friend.

I am visiting David because of my interest in what our church buildings say to our communities and particularly to adults under the age of forty. Our congregations teach and preach explicit messages when we gather for worship and Christian education, but we also communicate implicitly with our physical spaces. In other words, our walls talk.

(To read the rest, visit Evangelism Connections)

Where Do You Find the Time?

There are two ways in which that question is asked. One is by the person who has been to our church, read my books, reads my blogs, listened to our podcast, heard me at an event, met my family, and they ask, “Where do you find the time?” They appreciate my work and I appreciate the question.

Usually I mutter something about how our house is a disaster, our laundry pile is the size of Mount Everest, I don’t match socks, I don’t watch television, I wake up at 4:30 every morning, and I’m blessed to live in an area with a decent variety of cheap, healthy, fast ethnic food.

But there is another way that “Where do you find the time?” is asked. The question usually has to do with social media, and it comes with a bit of eye-rolling and some underlying assumptions, mainly, “My time is much more important to spend it on blogging.” And it often comes with the requisite jab, “I don’t care what you had for breakfast.”

If you don’t think that blogging, Facebook and Twitter are a good way for you to spend your time, then that’s fine. It does take some significant amount of energy to keep up with things. But please don’t judge, and don’t assume that you’re doing things that are way more awesome than we are.

There are many, many things that people do with their time that I don’t find all that stimulating, but I don’t shake my head and ask “Where do you find the time?” when someone tells me about their various hobbies, sports passions, or TV viewing habits.

As Clay Shirky reminded me in his latest book, in a time when most Americans made watching television into a part-time job, it’s kind of ridiculous to look at people who are interested in the Internet as participating in a vast and meaningless time-suck. After all, TV is passive entertainment, and most people spend time on the Internet creating content and relaying relevant (although I know this term is relative…) information. Whether it’s status updates, blog posts, web sites, or conversations over our breakfast menus, we’re involved in creating things. We’re interacting with other people. You may not think that it’s worth our time. And that’s okay. But could you please keep that to yourself? Then I promise I won’t point out how ridiculous it is that you’re wearing matching socks.

Meeting at the Level of the Ashtray

Often when churches are reaching out to people in their twenties and thirties, there is a tendency to expect them to become someone they are not before they walk into the door. For instance, eighteen percent of college students have never attended church before in their lives, but we too easily expect they will know exactly what to do when they step over the threshold of our sanctuary. They are supposed to know the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. They need to know what words like the “narthex” mean. They have to know exactly how they are supposed to take communion, or if they are welcome to the table at all. And then they are supposed to know and interpret the many unwritten social cues to which our churches adhere. For instance, in many congregations, if you’re moved by a musical piece, you are not supposed to clap.

There are good reasons for many of these practices of worship, and I don’t wish to downplay or dismiss them. But, as we sat around a table at the recent FTE Calling Congregations Conference, talking about how to minister to and with adults in their 20s and 30s, I realized once again how we cannot simply expect people to change who they are in order for them to fit in with us. It’s important to meet people where they are.

“It’s like what Howard Thurman said, you have to meet people at the level of the ashtray,” one of the participants explained.

I smiled at the image and asked what he meant. He told me how Howard Thurman wrote about his relationship with his landlady. There was tension between them and Thurman wasn’t sure what to do about it. Then he noticed how his landlady dumped out the lobby ashtrays each time there was a butt in it. She was fastidious about it, and so Thurman began to pay attention to those ashtrays. When he walked through the apartment lobby, each time a wayward butt was left in a tray, he took a moment to dump the ashes. Because he took the time to notice something that the landlady cared about, because he began to work with her, their relationship mended and strengthened.

After hearing that story, it reminded me that so often we want people to enter our churches and begin caring about all of the traditions and cultural norms that concern us, but we don’t always take the time to meet them at the level of the ashtray. We neglect to find out what concerns them, what is important to them, and how we can work together.

What concerns the younger men and women in our congregations? There are a lot of things that we can point to—the environment, the economy, AIDS, human trafficking, homelessness, poverty, or food issues. Big corporations have figured out that a new generation has deep care for so many things, and so they have developed cause marketing in order to link their products to a greater good. They realize that people are so worried about how they can change the world that it will influence what sort of products they will buy.

There are general trends, but I don’t know what the concerns are in each of our churches. Each context is different, and those who walk into our sanctuaries often have different burdens that they carry around. Yet, it’s vitally important that we find out what those concerns are. Listen to what weighs heavily upon them. Learn to meet people at the level of the ashtray and engage in work with them.

This was cross-posted from the FTE blog.

“As Any Had Need”

A friend of mine realized that she only had one friend who went to church. As someone who cares deeply about the church, she wondered why it was. And so she began to ask them, “Why don’t you go to church?”

The answers startled her. It wasn’t what she was expecting at all. The number one answer that she received was, “I can’t afford it.”

Another young women echoed another sentiment to me recently. She said, “I was like most people in their twenties. Even though I loved church, the budget always seemed to be going to their dilapidated building or mission work that I didn’t care about.”

Another person confided his personal budget to me. “I have my salary. Thirty percent of it goes to taxes. Sixty percent of it goes to paying rent. Ten percent of it goes to paying student loans. I don’t even know how I’m living, much less how I’m going to give to the church.”

Long before the economic crisis hit the stock market and the real estate market, it was creeping into the realities of young adults. Men and women in their twenties and thirties were feeling the crushing load of student loans, high rents, temporary employment, stagnant salaries, quick lay-offs, and uncovered medical expenses. Men and women who did everything “right” in their careers and budgets still found themselves with jobs that were not able to pay off the loans. They ended up juggling bills, figuring out which ones to pay each month, and praying that they never had any medical issues.

Congregations often want to reach younger members because (let’s be honest) churches need them for the bottom line. When men and women are in the midst of a personal financial crisis, and they walk into a church with a bigger financial crisis, it can be difficult for them to keep attending. When we want some shelter from the storm, some hope in the midst of our despair, it is hard to walk into a church and have the stress hit an even higher level, along with the expectation that you will be able to save the situation. Since there is not much cultural expectation for young adults to attend church (in fact, there’s more of an expectation that they will not attend), then it’s easy for them to go grocery shopping instead of walking into another financially stressful environment.

New congregations have responded to this in various ways (I don’t advocate all of these practices. I’m pointing them out, in the hopes of stimulating more ideas.):

•Rethinking the gathering space. Rent is often cheaper than maintenance. A few innovative churches have cut down their expenses dramatically by shedding the need for a building. They can often be found nesting in the basement of a church, a livingroom, a gallery space, a coffeehouse, or a pub.

•Changing the giving traditions. A few gatherings quit passing the plate during the service, and they have “joy boxes” near the door. People can place the money in the box on their way out. Some gatherings have extensive podcast or videocast ministries, so much of their income comes from around the world, as men and women give through the paypal button on the website.

•Encouraging tentmaking pastors and gatherings. Pastors are often encouraged to be bi-vocational. Or, the church itself is bi-vocational. For instance, the gathering might also serve as a coffeehouse, a winery, or an art gallery. If a person cannot give money to the church, they might be able to give their time serving coffee, or their talents in the form of an art donation, or expertise in website design.

•Creating a culture of giving and receiving. New congregations are often small, and they tend to respond to each other’s personal needs. When someone loses his or her job, the community often knows and they give to one another. So they are able to practice something an aspect of stewardship that has been missing in many of our established congregations: the act of receiving.

Of course, these innovative communities haven’t solved our economic concerns. But they are responding with creativity, imagination, and love. In many ways, there is a new economy arising in some churches. Where “stewardship” moves beyond the tiny pre-printed envelopes dropped into a shallow plate at 11:45 on Sunday morning. Instead, we are beginning too see how each can give to each other, in our needs and our abundance.

There are less radical ideas that would help in these situations as well. Having younger members as part of the process to carefully choose the mission projects and articulate them clearly. Making sure that people know that we don’t have a church tax. And, of course, always understanding that our ministry to and with all people, is not so that it can make our income line higher, but so that we can do God’s work.

What else have you seen? What other faithful responses to our economic crisis have you noticed?

Redefining Adulthood

I’m frustrated that sociologists have decided there is a new term for adults in their twenties. Financial stability and marriage has been an indicator of adulthood in our country, yet a new generation has not been able to become financially stable and many have not gotten married. So sociologists [9/6 edit, thanks to Gould: and psychologists] have come up with new terms: the odyssey years or emerging adulthood. Just as an adolescent is not a child or an adult, the emerging adult is not quite an adolescent or an adult.

The problem with this is that the odds are stacked against a new generation. Each generation has their own set of financial difficulties, but for those in their twenties and thirties, “financial independence” is very difficult to achieve. Because of the high cost of education, students often have to take out large loans. And with a difficult economy, their eventual incomes often do not outpace the debt. Many very responsible young adults move back into their parents’ homes, in order to pay down their loans.

Add to this equation that we now have a society that is based on two incomes, but a societal expectation that men and women need to be “financially stable” before they get married. Under these circumstances, many adults are unable to get married. Often people are in same gender relationships, and others choose not to get married. Does this make them less mature?

As a society, we set up these traps. Now, we look at a new generation who is caught in them, and claim that they are not-quite-adults. We wonder why they can’t settle down, or maintain stable careers or relationship. We wonder what’s wrong with them, while we don’t take responsibility for the hardships that we have caused.

With our definition of adulthood depending on solid careers, financial stability, mortgages, and marriage certificates, we will all have a difficult time. We know that many Baby Boomers have been laid off and had to change jobs. Many don’t have adequate retirements will be moving in with their sons and daughters in years to come. Do they lose their status as adults?

We need to change our definitions. We need to have more understanding of the financial and social dilemmas of a new generation.