Monday, April 19, 2010

The Membership Gap

I serve as a pastor in a shrinking denomination. Our church, the United Methodist Church, has been losing members for decades. The loss is significant enough that four out of five geographical regions, things we call "jurisdictions," are being required to eliminate a bishop. Bishops are often not easily eliminated. A lot of people want to be a bishop! This step means that things are serious - that the continuous decline is forcing some tough conversations.
While many people say we should not focus too much time or attention on numbers, I must confess that I think a lot about church growth. I spend hours daydreaming about how to bring more people into the church and how our church's ministry can play a role in God's never ending efforts to change and transform lives.

Last week, I attended a conference organized by members of my denomination titled, "Prodigal Worship." The conference was designed to showcase different ways in which our worship can attract prodigals - individuals not currently affiliated with the church, people not currently following Jesus. At Tuesday's Conference, Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church taught us about preaching and videos, stage design and other strategies. The folks from Midnight Oil offered a powerful presentation on the importance of metaphor. It was extraordinary and offered insights we will definitely use.
Throughout the day, the worship featured many singers standing around microphones. A couple of people played electric guitars. There were two kinds of drums and a couple of keyboards. Nothing was traditional. Everything was contemporary.

I left having been given the impression that unless our churches have rock bands and a screen, then we might as well not expect any young adults to come into our doors. I left having been given the impression that it is worship - and little else - that brings young people into our doors. experience has been quite different.

In the March 15, 2010 edition of Newsweek, Robert J. Samuelson offers statistics that we who are leading churches need to read. He writes in an article titled, "The Real Generation Gap," what millennials and Gen Xers do, think and feel. Millennials are individuals 29 and under. Gen Xers are people age 30 to 45. These two groups are the very groups many of our churches are missing.

Samuelson writes, "Surprising (to me): almost two-fifths of millennials (38 percent) have tattoos, up from a third (32 percent) among Gen Xers and a seventh (15 percent) among boomers. Not surprising: millennials are the first truly digital generation. Three quarters have created a profile on Facebook or some other social-networking site. Only half of Gen Xers and 30 percent of boomers have done so. A fifth of millennials have posted videos of themselves online, far more than Gen Xers (6 percent) or boomers (2 percent)."

Later in the article, Samuelson states, "Every generation shows more racial and sexual openness. Half of millennials favor gay marriage; among boomers and older Americans, support is a third and a quarter, respectively. Only 5 percent of millennials oppose interracial marriage, down from 26 percent among those 65 and older" (page 18).
How do we expect these individuals to come into a church that is sending an entirely different message?

I am not sure it is our worship style that is keeping people out of the church or bringing people into the church. I serve as the pastor of a church where we sing from a hymnal and are accompanied by either a piano or an organ. When I look out at our congregation, I see a congregation in which 75% of the people have come in the last couple of years, most of whom are under the age of 40. I serve a church that is growing - growing with young prodigals - growing with people who once wanted nothing to do with the church. Our church is growing - without a band and with technology that is all there but not often used.

A few weeks ago I was meeting with a couple preparing for marriage. One of the individuals goes to church occasionally and would like to go more. The other person wants little to do with the church. When we were talking about religion, I inquired of this person what it would take to get him going to church again, "What kind of church would you go to?" His response, "I would go to church if I could find a church that was not hateful or judgmental."

Our churches, many of our churches, are surrounded by young prodigals. Some of them have been told that they are not welcome because of how they live or how they love. Some of them have been looked at in a not so accepting way because of how they dress or perhaps even the tattoos on their body. Some of them have been given everything but a positive picture of the church - the body of Christ.

Yes, our church is growing. It is growing with people who want to be in a place that really is, "Come just as you are." It is growing with people who want to see a congregation seeking to faithfully engage and serve the needs of its community. It is growing with people who want to offer their time and other gifts to meet the complex needs of a city. It is growing with people who believe that all should be welcome - that all should be accepted - no matter what. This is the kind of church I serve. I love my church. If I were not pastoring this church, it is the kind of place I would want to come as a 30-something young adult.

It takes more than a rock band and an edgy video to get people in the doors. If the doors are shut, if they are even only partially open, then prodigals will never find their way home.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Missing Lent

I missed Lent this year. I started the 40 days with high hopes for how my life would change - for the discipline that would enter my diet, my exercise routine, and my spiritual life. I had high hopes for how I might be different come Easter. But, I did not see much real change throughout Lent - not much change until this week.

I missed Lent this year. Instead of journeying with an Adam Hamilton study focused on the final hours or a cross-shaped Bible study, our congregation entered into a Season of Storytelling. The conversation was rich. The ability to sit and listen was a gift. But, I don't feel like it brought me to the cross.

I missed Lent this year. Unlike my parishioner Mary Elizabeth who can hardly wait to eat a cookie and some candy come Sunday because she has not had it for 40 days, I did not let go of one specific thing that I love.

I missed Lent this year.

At least I thought I did. I thought I had missed it until this Holy Week commenced. I now realize where Jesus has me, and it is one step closer to the cross.

My eyes have been awakened this week to all the places where his name is still crucified. I have listened many mornings to the beat of a drum outside my office window, a drum that keeps marchers on step as they go around a circle arguing for better wages from a drywall company doing work in the building upstairs. It's a fine argument to make. But not when the argument is being made by homeless people who are marching for a union and being paid anything but a minimal wage.

I went to the cross on Tuesday. My spirit was already vulnerable as I had been working on my Good Friday sermon. There is something about preaching on this day that is so real and so painful. My mind was at the cross as I exegeted a passage and sought to discover how the final words from the cross, "into your hands I commend my spirit" could be made tangible in the lives of those who will gather downtown today. But I soon found my spirit coming to the cross, too.

At some moment on each day this week I have been working for equality in our United Methodist Church. I have been working, praying, and communicating for ways in which doors that are currently shut might be opened to LGBT United Methodists and those who will soon come to our churches. Each day, through emails and conversations, I have been aware of what a struggle this is - of how strong the opinions are on each side. Each day, I have been aware of the hurtful comments that are made - how mud is sometimes slung back and forth from both sides of the aisle. And, each day this week I have been reminded how even people who stand on the same side of the issue can somehow figure out how to oppose one another - to discourage one another instead of encourage one another. There have been times this week when I have wanted to toss my hands in the air and let it all go - not my call to this struggle and not my love of God - but my love of an institution. The struggle is so painful. But, I am reminded that there are thousands of people who have been struggling a lot longer than me. They have not given up. I am also reminded of how my life has been much easier - I am a straight, white person who has always been accepted, after all. And, through the push of Jesus, the journey to the cross, the shouting voices that call us to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God, I am not giving up either.

The cross is such a mysterious place. My colleague in the city has done a sermon series on all the theories that describe what happened there. There are a million of them. We can disagree on what exactly happened and the reasons behind it. But this I know. I know in my heart that Jesus came and showed us how to live - how to love extravagantly, how to go to the margins, how to let go of our lives so that God could have our lives. I know that Jesus willingly went to the cross. He went to the cross to show that death would not have the final answer. He went to the cross to show who was in control. He went to the cross, and he preached prophetic words even from that place - telling a thief, yes a thief! - that even the thief could enter God's kingdom that day. He went to the cross and continued to share words of love even from the place of crucifixion. He went to the cross and demonstrated to us what it looks like to embody the words, "Take up your cross and follow me." He was crucified - not for being bad - but for being so incredibly good. He was crucified for taking something - for taking power away from the fists of this world's ways.

And then he rose. And his resurrection is what tells me that no matter what might be happening today, there is always another way. No matter how many people walk without the basic necessities or the care or the dignity they respect, there will come a day when all of God's children will have shoes! No matter what today holds, I know that the ultimate tomorrow is held by God.

I've journeyed to the cross. I'm ready to stand with him there from noon to 3:00 today. I'm ready to go to Golgotha. But God, when it's all over, please, please give me the courage and the wisdom to not just walk away and celebrate Easter but to take up the crosses you continue to call me and our church to carry. Show us, once more, who is in captivity and waiting to be freed. Show us, God, who needs your resurrection power - the power that shows us who really is in control. Take us to the cross.