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.


Katie Bishop said...

amen Donna. I think this needed to be made more clear last week too. Thank you for posting this.

Desiree* said...

Completely agree with you! I think people are not drawn into church because the church isn't doing anything! It does not sacrifice- not for itself or the community... (I just finished reading 'In His Steps' by Charles Sheldon- pretty awesome)I guarantee if the church actually seemed as if it was making a difference in the life of the community, people would notice and wonder why... and they would find out and know we are Christians by our love...

On a completely different note, I also think we rely on ourselves and worship methods instead of the Spirit to bring people into "our" ministries... I mean, how often do we pray for the people God wants to bring closer? For the Spirit to be stirred in our parishes? For opportunities to sacrifice for Christ? For the chance to take a leap of faith not knowing where God will bring us? Do we still believe the Spirit can work in miraculous ways?

Sometimes Im not so sure... but I pray for God to help me with my disbelief!

Anonymous said...

Very, very, very well said, Donna. You echo a thought I had been ruminating on for a while-- that what keeps people away from our churches is our lack of authenticity and sincerity. Edgy digital screen projections and a band don't communicate either of those things at all. Maybe we need to shift the conversation away from "relevance" to "authenticity".