Back when I was in seminary, there was a retreat center that ran advertisements in church trade magazines. The ad featured a large picture of a youngish hipster male blissfully and intently staring at a handful of moss. I will say that again. He was staring at a handful of moss. It appeared that he had previously been smelling it and was now in the process of of making it his pet. I always thought this picture was a little odd. I get the idea of course. I know (and teach) my Emerson and Thoreau. "Come to our retreat center and stare at moss" isn't really that bad a sales pitch in the world of spiritual and religious development. It indicates an extended period of free time with nothing to bother you. You have the freedom to stare at moss! What a blessing that is.
That image has been flashing through my mind lately when people ask how my "vacation" is going. They mean my sabbatical, of course, but since they probably aren't reading my blog their image of me is closer to that of our moss-meditating friend than it is to reality. At the very least I must be sitting by the lake, right? Nope. I have projects and ideas, many of which I have already mentioned. However I am finding that there is a certain flexibility in my time that has allowed me to engage in an unofficial listening tour of church leaders who also happen to be my friends. I have to tell you. What they report is both exciting and sobering.
Things are hard in the traditional church. People are stressed out. Attendance is down. enrollment is down. Pledges are just holding their own in most places and dipping in others. Our old, romantic-yet-tired buildings keep sucking away more and more of the money. Our pastors feel the pinch of limited resources and guilt for not being able to "turn it around" and send the church back to the dreamy heights of the 1950's and 60's. They experience this while knowing in their hearts that in most cases they really really can't. That train has left the station. A new era has begun.
Still, in the midst of all the crazy and the chaos, people are finding new ways to do church. They are seeing clearly enough to begin to build the tools and techniques that will help the next generations grow their own communities of faith. They do this even as they live in and love the old way.
In an earlier post I wrote about how the new church is coming but that I didn't know if I had any suggestions. I still may not, but I do have a better idea of what people see as the next thing. By "people" I mean ministers, mostly, and some dedicated lay leaders. Which is to say, the folks who think about this pretty much all the time.
I am beginning a series today about what I am learning. First we will look at some changes that people are talking about. Perhaps there might even be some suggestions by way of example, but I can't promise anything....
Here is #1
Denominations are becoming both less important and more important.
This really shouldn't be a shock to anyone, right? We all know about those people who do not claim any particular religion (we like to call them "nones" apparently). Well, guess what? Most lay people who attend church probably don't claim a specific denomination. Instead of saying "I am a--" [UU, Baptist, or...whatever] they say "I attend--" [First Parish or Johnson Street Baptist or...whatever]. Their identity is with a specific group of people with whom they have formed relationships, not with an office in a city somewhere, a set of historic institutional predecessors, or even a poetically-named initiative.
The specific differences between the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, American Baptist Convention, and Disciples of Christ, for example are very important to the people whose job it is to serve member congregations. To the person who shows up on Sunday or volunteers in a congregation's ministry it is a lot less important. There are plenty of agnostics in conservative churches. There are plenty of evangelicals in liberal ones. I have met a lot of them. Mostly they are happy where they are and have solid reasons for attending a congregation that does not reflect their theology. To put it simply, they love the people they go to church with.
That said, all you denominational types don't need to panic right away. There is something very important that you need to do. Congregations still need services. Folks may no longer want denominational leadership (denomination x tells me to do y so I will) but they do want quality materials for RE. They like to have their professional staff licensed in some way. They need people with big picture knowledge to facilitate their own congregational discernment. Churches need to know that they are not alone even if our connections work differently than they did before.
Denominations cannot point the way to the future because they don't know what it will be either. They are doing their best to do so but there have been so many changes. Just like churches, themselves, they are trying to survive, to hold on to what they have been for the last century or so. Also just like the churches the option to turn back or stay the same is a mirage. We are all becoming transdenominational. We are finding out together what that means. Clearly there is a place for institutions that work with (not over) congregations. I know many denomination leaders who are doing just this kind of work. It is happening but it is slow and sometimes obscured by other things.
For those of us who serve churches in the Congregationalist tradition we have a model hidden among the various programs, initiatives and positions that have built up over the years. Providing basic services was what denominations (or associations) were originally all about! In the Congregationalist way every congregation is its own denomination. An individual is only ever a member of that local church community. Good news! We are headed back to our roots. The challenge is to point ourselves in the right direction.
OK this is already long so I am ending Chapter #1
Here is a link to Chapter #2
...TO BE CONTINUED...