A vision for the future (and really now) of the church

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the current model of the church is no longer sustainable. Some may think such a statement is controversial, but the evidence shows that how the church is structured and functions and operates hasn’t been sustainable for awhile now. How many articles have you read about the decline of the church in the West? By some measurements, the decline started in the early 1950’s after it crested following the chaos caused by World War II. It makes sense that there would be a huge growth in the church in the West as the people of that time were searching for meaning and belonging and safety when all the world offered was war, financial chaos, and a mess. But when the war ended and people started to get on with life, there was less of a need for the church. However, the culture still catered to the church and so many people remained a part of the church because it was a social outlet, it was a good place to make contacts for business, because it was expected, etc. Many reasons not associated with faith or discipleship. That’s not to say that there weren’t those interested in faith and discipleship – there certainly were. But it would be hard to argue that everyone was interested in that.

At any rate, we’re still using the model of the post-world war church. But we are several generations removed from the circumstances that created that model. And it no longer works. And it is not sustainable. I’d like to propose a new model for the church in the West. A model that might work given our current circumstances. A model that I also know will need to change within a generation because circumstances will have changed again by that time if not sooner.

Which brings me to point #1 – models are not meant to be set in stone. They are something that you use for a while, then discard when they are no longer valid or useful. Changing a model isn’t about success or failure of the model. It’s an acknowledgement that what once worked no longer does because things have changed – the assumptions that we had are no longer valid. The communal agreements no longer hold.

This isn’t controversial. Companies do this all the time. So do nations. Militaries, universities, and even families make necessary changes based on changing circumstances. I’ll take my own family for example. My wife and I have four children. When they were young, how we interacted with them was different than how we interact with them as teenagers who are in high school and college. The model for interaction changed because circumstances changed. It’s not that the earlier model was bad. It’s no longer valid or useful. A new model was needed, and we adapted and changed to meet the needs.

For too long, the church seems to have refused to go though this necessary examination and adjustment, preferring to do the impossible – keep things the way they are, even though the world around the church, the people in the church, and everything else changed. That’s not healthy, or natural. It’s a recipe for death. In nature, creatures that refuse to adapt go extinct.

So let’s take a look at the current model of the church in America. The current model typically looks like this (although there are variations of course).

  • One pastor for a congregation (or one pastor for a couple of congregations) who does the majority of the ministry on behalf of the congregation.
  • Each congregation has their own supplies, their own building, their own staff, their own resources, their money, their own land.
  • Each congregation tries to do as many things as they can on their own – often replicating services and ministries of other nearby congregations who do the same things.
  • The vast majority of the funding source for the operation of the church is collected on Sunday morning during the worship service.
  • Most congregations operate on a committee structure where there are regular monthly meetings with an agenda. Decisions are made and often need to be signed off by some other group within the church.
  • The assumption of many congregations is that activities of the church should be done at the church and that others should come to the church as the base of activity.
  • There is an assumption by many that membership in the church is important and offers members a form of identity, belonging and community.
  • There is an assumption that attendance at worship is the key way for people to be a part of the church – and is the first way to get people engaged in the life of the church. Worship will lead to service, growth, etc.

That model is neither good nor bad. For many congregations, and for many years, that model worked great. That’s the model many people in the church believe in because it did work well in the past. This is why so many want to go back to certain things – as if going back in church will somehow bring back the large attendance for early morning Sunday worship, or large Sunday worship giving, or participation in committees of the church, or that people will find their way into a church building on an early Sunday morning because they were searching for a church.

None of those assumptions are correct though. If they were, the church would be in a different place than it is currently. I’m Gen X. And while I can’t speak for everyone of my generation, I feel pretty confident that many Gen Xer’s feel the same way. And the younger generations do to. Here’s what I know – I’ve never been in a full congregation in my entire life (except maybe Easter or Christmas). It’s not the norm by which I measure church. It’s an oddity. Attendance does not equal belief. Membership does not equal discipleship. People who work throughout the week, especially those with kids, are exhausted and the last thing they want to do is get up, get dressed up, and go to church early on a Sunday, if at all. My generation and younger don’t use check books and many don’t even have a checking account and wouldn’t know how to write out a check if they had one. We don’t fear technology, but find it very useful and use it throughout our day every day. In fact we use apps to help our spiritual lives grow and don’t find this odd at all, but find it weird that the church doesn’t use technology as much as it could. We hate committees because they are like eternal commitments that seem like the most important thing they do is meet for the sake of meeting. We have been screwed over by institutions and don’t trust them – why would we want to identify with them?

Here’s the model I’d like to propose for the church in America:

  • There is no one size-fits all solution. That means we aren’t interested in the fights over who is right and who is wrong. We’re interested in seeing what works in a given context. That means the people need to be empowered, rather than told what to do. When the people have ownership, amazing things happen. Plus, or maybe even primarily, this empowering opens the door to the Spirit to do what the Spirit wants to do.
  • The role of the pastor needs to change. Over the last two years, things that we were never trained in became essential parts of our jobs, on top of what we were already doing. No wonder pastors are leaving at alarming rates. We need to rethink the role of the pastor as the person with all the knowledge and information and answers to someone who walks with people, empowering them to do ministry. A person who knows where the resources are and can shift the resources to match up with what the Spirit is actively doing. A person who facilitates faith growth and discipleship rather than tells people what they have to believe. A person who encourages critical thinking, asking questions, and offers a courageous space for doubt to exist without shame or judgement. A person who empowers people to do ministry, not doing it on behalf of everyone else.
  • Team ministry is the way to go. Solo ministry leads to burn out. I can envision a group of congregations (however you want to define that) getting together and discerning several things. They would need to discern what the congregation is called to – what is the ministry focus? Not everyone should do all ministries. But if congregations are in partnership with each other, then they know who does what and does it well and connects people with ministries they are called to, regardless of where it is being done. On the same token, a team approach to pastoral ministry would look similar. It would take the gifts and talents of pastors for a group of congregations and discern what roles they have. Not all pastors are visionary. Not all are good at pastoral care. Not all are detail people. But in a team, you are more likely to have people who cover all the bases for multiple congregations and you have ministers doing more of what they are good at, working together helping the congregations move forward in ministry. It’s a real partnership. (You can include deacons and other professional religious folks in this).
  • Funding for ministry has to go beyond a collection in person on a Sunday morning. Given the advancements in technology and how many churches are starting to tap into it, there are many opportunities for new funding models for ministry. Congregations who are blessed with land have options and opportunities for how they use those resources and can receive funding for their use.
  • We haven’t even begun to tap into what Christian formation looks like in a hybrid age. When automobiles first came out, they were referred to as horseless carriages because people went to what they knew. They drove as if it was a carriage because that’s what they knew. It took an attitudinal shift to leave the carriage behind and recognize what a car was and what it could do. Our faith formation is driving a horseless carriage right now. I look forward to seeing the attitudinal shift to what a car would be for faith formation. It requires holy imagination and experimentation.
  • New ministry and mission needs to be the focus. Trying to save all the existing institutions and models and congregations is a losing battle. That doesn’t mean you write everyone and everything off. Far from it. It means that we should be looking at our communities and seeing where God is already active and becoming a part of it. This approach is what it means to be a community hub. Not everyone wants to be in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning. That’s fine. But doing a ministry on your own is difficult and often ends in failure. What if instead of fail or succeed, we approached this as a community hub. Think of a wheel with spokes coming out from it. All of the ministries are connected, but they don’t all work the same or look the same, or happen at the same place. But they all have value and support one another.
  • Digital isn’t an add on, but a central core part of ministry. We have to shift our thinking from what an in person church with an online option to an online church with an in person option. I heard that not long ago at a conference I was at and it is true. This will mean a reexamination of the church. It means looking at the budget, our staff, our properties, tech needs, how we operate and function, how ministry happens, etc.
  • Teams instead of committees. This not a rhetorical difference, but rather a cultural shift. Committees gather for meetings. Teams get to work. People aren’t interested in meeting to talk about things. They are interested in getting to work to solve problems and when they are done, disbanding the team until something else needs to be addressed. Having said all of that, strategy is needed, along with coordination. But again, this is looking for people who have those skill sets, and empowering them to do what they are called to do so that they can in turn empower others to do the detail and hands on work.
  • Advocacy. Advocacy is an essential part of discipleship. It’s not an add on or something to be feared. Advocacy goes beyond charity. Charity deals with the wound that exists – offering comfort and healing. Advocacy tries to prevent the hurt in the first place or end the hurting that is going on so that we can start to help others. Both charity and advocacy are needed. But the church has focused on charity and been silent on advocacy – at least in terms of the average church member.
  • Discipleship. We are called to make disciples, not members. All it takes for someone to be a member is to show up and commune once and to give a penny in the offering. That’s it. Now let me say that there are many dedicated members in churches across this country – that take their membership and go far beyond. These folks are a blessing and make ministry a joy. But the concept of membership in church needs to be examined. This relates to how decisions are made and who makes them. This requires better understanding of context in which ministry is happening and engaging with and empowering those who are on the receiving end of ministry, as well as those who are offering the ministry. It’s true accompaniment.
  • Stewardship. Stewardship is discipleship. Stewardship is more than fundraising too. There are great resources that exist that offer wonderful models for equipping a stewardship environment and culture. We have to get past the fear of talking about money.
  • Youth. Youth aren’t just the future, they are now. Far too many churches are noticing that they have few or even no youth in their midst. Why is that? There are no nice easy answers. Want more youth, then spend resources on them. Spend time with them. A congregation that makes youth a priority – not just in terms of words, but in putting their money where their mouth is, along with their time and adults – will see the result of that investment. It benefits the youth for sure, but even more than that – it benefits the entire congregation. It makes our thinking younger, more creative, more willing to explore and imagine. It forces us to examine our faith and to share it in ways that are realistic and practical.
  • Talking about difficult topics and issues. If we can’t talk about racism, sexism, nationalism, poverty, drugs, sex, money, work, violence, homelessness, crime, and more in church, then where in the world can we. And by talking about these things, I don’t mean parroting lines we’ve heard on cable news shows or from politicians. I mean really talk about issues and how they impact people, communities, and more. How they impact us. How they impact real people. Part of this is listening to people who have been impacted – people who have different experiences from us. We learn when that happens. We gain new perspectives. We move from the right/wrong duality narrative, to seeing complexity and perplexity and the mess and the complications of life. And we can then look at these situations through the lens of faith and how our faith calls us to respond or be active.
  • Metrics. For too long, the church has measured attendance and offering as the sole measuring sticks. Those measurements are ok, but they don’t tell a full picture. We need to decide what we need to measure as a church. Bigger isn’t always better. More isn’t always what we want. We need to be intentional in what we measure and have reasons for why we are measuring things. And this relates to the first point – context matters. The church can do a better job with helping congregations in their context determine what they can measure to help them know if they are on the right track. There isn’t a universal measurement that works for everyone. But there are things that churches should measure.
  • Worship. Holy imagination is essential. The pandemic has been terrible in many respects. And a blessing as well. Because of the pandemic many churches made decisions and necessary changes that they could have put off for another decade. They experimented and tried things. And adjusted. And that’s a beautiful thing. And should continue to happen. Maybe Sunday morning isn’t the best time to worship for a given community – then worship on another day or time. Maybe in person worship isn’t what is needed any more – then go hybrid or online. Maybe the building in which you worship needs to be changed in order to accommodate hybrid worship. Or maybe the pews need to be removed in order to move the altar to the center of the sanctuary. Or maybe worship happens in various locations. Maybe worship looks different each week. Or takes on a new twist. Maybe worship looks different with different groups of people gathered. We are in a new era in which imagination and creativity are the keys. It’s what will allow us to recognize that God is encountering us in our worship and in our daily lives.

I’m sure I could have added more to this. But here’s the thing. This is a model. Is it perfect? Not for everyone. If you ask what model will work for five years from now, I’m willing to bet my answers will be different. That’s the beauty of this. It’s time for a new model. Let’s get to work.

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