The Church: What Do We See?
When her father died she had immediately stopped going to church. If prayer could not even keep your family alive, she did not see what good it was. But after she and Hank moved to Houston, she had started going again. You were marked if you didn’t. She did not really think about whether she believed, though in the past decade her faith had come back, and they said that was all that mattered. Being old, you had no real choice—salvation or eternal nothingness—and it was no wonder who you saw in church, it was not young people with hangovers and their entire lives ahead of them.
— Philip Meyer, The Son
The last sentence of the quote above confirms what many observe and comment upon when it comes to church demographics these days. Churches are full of old people. Old people who still come either because they have been so thoroughly socialized into church attendance that they can’t imagine not showing up, or who are at a stage in their lives where they have nothing left to do but cling to the consolations of religion. Like all stereotypes, it is crude and rigid and doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story, but I suspect that there are few among us who wouldn’t at least nod in recognition of these sentiments and the general trends that animate them.
Last Sunday before worship our church had the refreshing opportunity to hear a different narrative. We welcomed a handful of twenty-something Mennonites called the Emerging Voices Initiative who are genuinely interested and engaged in the future of the church. This group has traveled across the country to engage with churches about how we might collectively shape a hopeful future. The national Mennonite church I am a part of is in the midst of what a friend recently (somewhat cynically, perhaps) described as “managed decline.” We are struggling to restructure and reimagine ourselves in light of shrinking donations, declining membership, and theological divisions. Into this reality, these young people are asking great questions like: “What are our dreams for the future of the Mennonite church? What might we have to let go of to make these things happen? What do leaders of our conference need to hear?” Our conversation on Sunday was a very good one, and led by some wise and inspiring young adults.
Having said that, it was of course ironic to observe who was present to engage with these wise and inspiring young adults. Most of the people in the room were north of fifty. And this fits with broader cultural trends. I’m not the first person to notice that volunteerism and civic engagement are increasingly the domain of mostly, well, older people. There are few committees that I sit on where I am not among the youngest members. Yes, there is something to be said for the wisdom that comes with age, but still… The structures and institutions (including, but not limited to the church) that were birthed by previous generations are not being picked up with any great enthusiasm by those following in their wake. As wonderful as it was to hear from these young people who are so obviously passionate about the future of the church, they represent only a small subsection of their generation, as was noted in our conversation on Sunday morning.
Speaking of young adults and the church, over the Christmas break I came into my office one day and found an envelope with my name on it sitting on my desk. It was a hand-written (!) letter from a young pastor in our area that I connect with periodically. We often meet for lunch in a small town between our two cities, and talk about everything from the state of the church to the role of the pastor to what it means to serve in this unique role at this particular moment in history. The letter was a gift to me. It seemed true and wise in many ways, even as it obviously leads to many more questions.
Here are a few excerpts from my younger friend’s letter (used with permission):
It struck me recently that to some extent we will have to become comfortable with shrinking institutions. It seems to me to be an inevitability of the aging baby boom. Our parents had institutions build around them. The sheer size and affluence that generally accompanied them as a group meant that for a significant period in North American history they have been the bedrock and lifeblood of our institutions, not least of which was the church. Their parents gave the place, but it was the collective economy of our parents that built and sustained the institutional activities of our world. Children’s programs and youth groups thrived precisely when the baby boomers needed programs for their children and youth.
I know that I’m not the first to make that observation, and I lack specific evidence to support the theory. I am convinced, however, that one of the important roles that we shall play in the next couple of decades is the task of shepherding aging institutions well. There will be pockets where churches are packed with young families, budgets bursting… Not all of us will be called in this way. I think the questions we shall grapple with will have much less to do with success, and more to do with loss and grief and memory. Equipping the next generation not with a sense of how to build successful institutions, but rather how to belong successfully to history, to each other, to Scripture, and ultimately to Christ. We will be assessed not by the size of our churches but by the shape and depth of their heart…
The church as currently constituted is a gift. Pulpits are gifts. Offices are gifts. Budgets that exceed expectations are gifts. We were never entitled to a particular shape of institution; we were invited into an institution with a particular shape. These things change. Sometimes it hurts a great deal.
But what am I saying in all this? I wish to encourage you in the good work you are doing and be encouraged in my own work as well. But beyond that, I hope to trust that whatever comes—next year, next decade, or the one after that—that my course is firmly entrenched not upon my personal success or the success I experience in the church of which I am a part, but rather to the one who is comfortable with dying and brings eternal life to the places and people we least expect…
A post like this raises many questions, I know, and answers few of them. Such are the challenges and opportunities of our time and place. I welcome dialogue!