Church Growth (?)

Friends, In 2012 I was ordained as a pastor in the ELCA. In those four years, we centered on what’s truly central: God’s Good News to the world in Jesus Christ. Did we have discussions on church growth? Sure. But the focus was on “equipping the saints” (whether in New Start Congregations – aka Mission Developments, or in standing congregations – aka Mission Redevelopments) to foster life-giving relationships among one another, but also to serve God by serving the neighbor. That’s pretty much the mission of God, and there’s lots of scriptural backup for that. Read the New Testament for specific examples.

So that’s my training. I’ve done Mission Development Training, Mission Redevelopment Training, followed “Grasshopper Myth” authors, authors who assure us that “Dirt Matters.” I’ve read the Great Permission. I’ve read about emotional systems theory and conflict transformation. I’ve trained in pastoral care. I’ve trained in biblical languages, exegesis, homiletics, systematic theology, dogmatic theology, philosophy, anthropology, atonement theology, creation theology, stewardship, and a whole doggone bunch of things you probably have never really considered.

But when you get to the parish, the main things people tend to be hoping for are comforting those already gathered into the congregation and then getting more people into the congregation so that we can keep on doing what we’ve grown comfortable with. That’s understandable. It’s human. But is it what GOD wants? Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s what we’re looking at. Without going into TOO much detail, following WWII, we saw people grappling with a second “War to End All Wars” within two generations. People were struggling with the depth of human depravity that would allow an entire nation to exterminate a perceived enemy and to do so in the most cool, calculated, inhumane ways possible. People were facing the aftermath of that war and the growth of “godless communism” in Eastern Europe and the Far East. With a mixture of hope and hopelessness, folks turned to the church. And so the years after the War saw a massive rise in church membership – something that hadn’t really ever existed on such a scale before. And they were taking their children, the so-called Baby Boomers, with them to church.

There were a LOT of Baby Boomers. They tended to grow up in one of two ways: they became extremely suspicious of institutions and raised children to be even MORE suspicious than they were, OR they stayed with the church, developed programs to attract (or bring back) seekers, who knew that suspicion wasn’t the best approach to life, and reminded them of their own childhood religion. Nostalgic comfort. I don’t mean it wasn’t sincere. By no means! But it did have to do with comfort and what was perceived as tradition, even though church membership following WWII was actually a novelty.

Well, ever since the late 1950s, church membership has been in decline. Yes, we have flare ups from time to time, particularly following great tragedies. Presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks, things of that nature. But the general trend in church membership has been on a downward track for decades. That feels threatening.

In the 1980s, we saw the rise of the “religious right.” And we saw many of their hero pastors fall to money and sex scandals. We turned to CEO pastors, who began treating the church like a business with a product to sell. That’s kind of the model we’ve been stuck in for the last 40 years.

We love our congregations. We want them to continue. And in an effort to make sure that happens, we grasp at every trend that comes along. Sunday School indoctrination, VBS, singles programs, widow/widower programs, small group programs, every conceivable program there is. We are literally “anxious” about the downward trend, and we will sell our souls if we have to in order to keep alive this institution we’ve poured so much of ourselves into.

Do our institutions “deserve” to continue? I don’t know. Probably. As a collective body, a congregation has a lot of good it can do in a community, but anxiety gets in our way. The will to survive often stands in the way of the need to thrive. As pastors called into struggling congregations (as if that term weren’t redundant), we feel the anxiety, too. It rubs off on us. And we depend for our own livelihoods on financially sound congregations. Let’s face that reality. And so it’s easy for us to get sucked into conversations and pressures to “grow the church.” Everyone is looking for a magic bullet approach.

The good news is, I’ve got one. If you want to “grow the church” by “attracting young families with children,” all you have to do is look to the non-denominational model. Take out the pews. Put in big screens. Host events on Saturdays, Sundays, and/or Wednesdays that a pastor either pre-records or broadcasts from offsite, and intersperse that pastor’s message with a band that plays electrified guitar praise music. Put in a coffee bar. Maybe add a rock wall and a video arcade in order to attract the kids’ attention. That’s what’s working and that’s the “magic bullet” for growing the church’s numbers. Period.

The less good news, or maybe the question that problematizes the good news: Is that what you want? More importantly, is that what GOD wants? I suspect that anyone reading this blog would say, “Not just no, but HELL no!” And I’m with you. What people WANT is to be catered to. That goes for the ever-elusive young families with children, AND it goes for the saints who already sit in our pews.

Those of us already here have strong ideas about what we want in a pastor, for example: young, married, straight, white men or women, who will sacrifice their families for the sake of the membership. We want pastors who will sacrifice their very selves in order to fit into our preconceived notions of what a pastor ought to be (pedestal dwellers, who don’t cuss, who don’t drink, who don’t sin, moral exemplars for us to follow … and then to demonize when they fail to live up to our unrealistic expectations). They should know when we are sick or sad or hospitalized without our having to inform them of it. They shouldn’t be too pushy or intrude on our private lives. They shouldn’t talk about money, but they need to help us be good financial stewards. They shouldn’t talk about politics, but they should let us rant and rave about our political opinions.

Those of us already here have strong opinions about what our worship should be. Solemn but fun, worshipful but easygoing, traditional but flexibile, at the right time of day that doesn’t interfere with our non-church lives and dinners and football games, filled with inspiring music that isn’t too old-fashioned or too repetitive or too “modern.” There should be options for Communion elements: we should have wafers for those who don’t like the bread and bread for those who don’t like the wafers. There should be a gluten free option for those who have celiac disease, but don’t make all the rest of us who don’t have that condition suffer with a gluten free wafer. There should be grape juice for those of us who struggle with alcohol (which the pastor doesn’t struggle with because he or she doesn’t drink), but wine for those of us who grew up on wine at communion. It should be red wine, sweet but not too sweet, dry but not too dry. We should have the traditional liturgy we grew up with, but not done in a boring, rote, repetitive way.

Visitors should be like us when it comes to worship. They should love our liturgy, our vestments, our liturgical colors, our lectionary cycle, our songs, and while they may have their own preferences, eventually they’ll come to know and love us and will worship exactly as we do (even though not all of us are actually very comfortable with everything in our worship). Oh, but all are welcome!

I could go on, but you get my drift. After this lengthy preamble, I just have this to say: It’s not about us or our wants or our comfort. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Or as Jesus said many centuries before Bonhoeffer, “Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” “Take up your cross and follow me.”

We are anxious about losing our life – our congregational life, our comfortable faith life. That anxiety stands directly in the way of our finding our life. Our REAL life. Our BIGGER life. The one GOD wants for us. Not the smaller one we have cultivated and curated for ourselves. If we can lay that anxiety aside, put our trust in Christ … who, after all, is the ONLY one who can “grow the church” … then we will be free to focus on what it is that HE wants us to do. We already know WHO/WHAT he wants us to be: his disciples. Loving one another as he has loved us. Serving him by serving our neighbors. If we do THAT, we will surely attract all kinds of people, including the ever-sought-but-ever-so-scarce families with children.

The rest of this is just preferences. Distraction. Light as a puff of empty air.

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