By Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
I am about to begin at a new church, a new ministry, this coming Sunday, and the same question has been asked of me again and again: how are we going to get new people to church?
It’s the same question everyone has been asking. And I really don’t think it’s the right question for us to be asking. Instead, the question needs to be, “how are we going to live out our walk with Jesus in the world?”
Just over a year ago I posted this article Online Chaplaincy, on how the internet has added a new dimension to ministry: a way to offer prayer, spiritual guidance and even opportunities to minister publically with people who have not set foot in church and probably won’t. More and more, I am thinking that the future of ministry may lie in this sort of freelance-style ministry, rather than in church buildings. This post is an attempt to map that out, to dream a new way of doing/being church in the community. I am not assuming this is what I will do in my next church, but I do think that I’m beginning to see a glimpse of a new way of church life in a post church-culture America.
I still remember a prominent member of the first church I served saying, “If we just open the doors, new people will come in.” I still am not sure what he meant by that. Do people just walk into an open door? Did he mean that if we made people feel welcome they would want to come in and stay? Did he think people were attracted to an old but beautiful building? In any case, I think the statement and all the interpretations of it are false assumptions.
The church-culture that permeated the weekly routine of much of America is coming to an end. Having just moved from the South, I am aware that some of the culture remains, specifically in pockets of the Bible Belt, but even there, the church-culture is being challenged. Sports practices are now being held on Sunday afternoons and evenings. Wednesday nights, which was also considered sacred time in many churches for special programing and Youth Groups is fading. It’s only a matter of time before Sunday mornings in the South, just like in the Northeast where I lived before, become subject to games, meets and practices being scheduled. And even if they remain open, often Sunday morning is the only morning kids get to sleep in.
Throughout high school and college, even today as an adult, I have two groups of friends: clergy and non-churchgoers. I have only a few friends who are not clergy and also go to church. Most of my friends who are non-churchgoers are still what I would call people of faith—they have some sort of faith in God or acknowledge a spiritual aspect to their lives, but do not go to church or synagogue. And while a few have been searching and just haven’t found what they are looking for, most have not. Most do want their children to learn something of the moral teachings they learned, even Bible stories—but they are not limited to the Bible, nor do they want their children to experience the strictness of the teachings they remember in the church.
However, most of my non-churchgoing friends at one point or another have asked me specifically to pray for them or someone in their lives. Several have asked me to perform blessings for their newborn children. I’ve officiated at weddings and have blessed houses. In a way, I’m sort of a freelance minister, but I haven’t charged for it yet.
We’ve seen this trend coming. How many people have come to churches looking to get married by a minister but don’t want to come to church? How many times are we called to do a funeral for someone we don’t know who is barely connected at all to the church? And how many people do we know have an “online ordination” so they could perform a wedding for friends? There is still a need for ritual, for spiritually significant rites in our culture.
But how do we connect this to community and to Jesus? All too often we have jumped the gun. We have extended a way-too-eager invitation for people to come to church. We have suggested that the membership rate for weddings is cheaper than the non-member rate. We have tried to get people in the door and then have them conform to our membership. And if we do get them in the door, we try to find a place for them in our old ways and organizational structure. We worry if we don’t see them for 3 Sundays in a row. We question their commitment when they miss a weeknight committee meeting. We fret that their children don’t come early for Sunday School.
We all know this: church has to be dreamed up again. Even if we see other churches growing and having great Sunday School programs and they are still doing things the old way with a new twist, it is not going to last. The culture has changed.
I have long felt that my generation will be the last in full-time traditional ministry. I am not sure there will be a future of full-time ministers. However, I am convinced by my friendships and by the questions I receive from strangers in the community that clergy—professional ministers—are still needed. Most people who have any sort of religious background want a minister to do their wedding. Most people want a minister to do a loved one’s funeral. And many want a minister for spiritual questions, for rituals such as children’s dedications, and other such family and community blessings. We are still needed. This raises many other questions, such as the cost of seminary and professional ministry training with the reality that it is becoming a part-time, even “freelance” vocation.
The need for community has not changed—people need a place to belong, to be a participant of, but as I see with my friends, this sort of community happens in more informal settings—a Sunday brunch, a play-date at the park, a gathering at happy hour—settings where you are not expected to talk about God or faith but where it does come up naturally. And a clergyperson is not required for all of these settings. But these are gatherings of community, perhaps even communities of faith. The need to come and gather for a formal worship setting on Sunday morning is not for everyone, and has faded from the norm.
Nonetheless, I am someone who grew up in church and loves going to church. Every church I have been a part of and indeed, most churches I have visited recently have a few younger adults—and I mean in their 20’s—who have continued to come to church. However, many of us young adults who grew up in the church-culture are ready to let go of many of the aspects of traditional church-culture: we don’t want to sit on committees and attend long meetings. We don’t want to be the token young adult on a search committee. We don’t want to do the business of church as it has been done. But we still desire worship together. And we may still desire traditional worship, hymns and liturgy (though we may also be willing to try new things as well). But there are fewer of us than in previous generation.
Generally speaking, I have noticed two trends of friends who do not go to church based on the Boomer generation before us. Either the Boomer parents wanted their children to make their own decisions about faith and therefore didn’t make them go to church, or they did bring their children to church but this generation found that church experience stifling and strict. Most of my friends that do not go to church fall in one of those two camps. There are still some who did grow up in a church community that was nurturing but married someone who did not and so they have not gone to church, and a very few who simply don’t believe anymore.
However, I wonder if a more home-grown Christianity is also possible. Many of my Jewish friends do not go to synagogue every Saturday, but they do go for the high holy days, and at home they celebrate Shabbat. There are rituals and traditions passed on at home that have carried on. And through these home and family celebrations, they recall the stories of the past, they are reminded of who they are, and they remain connected to a community of faith. In a sense, many people do this already: we share grace before meals at home. This is one ritual that I have seen observed in homes and restaurants and other gatherings that, regardless of whether one considers themselves religious or not, regardless of whether they as a family go to church or not, the practice of saying grace before meals has lasted beyond the churchgoing years.
Perhaps this is the direction we are going. Maybe clergy need to help guide people into ways of creating home-grown rituals, ways of learning about Scripture and traditions within the family or a small gathering of friends. With commentary and study guides so readily available online, with clergy and scholars on social media, perhaps this is the next step.
We might wonder how in the world Christianity can make a difference in the community anymore. One of the complaints I have heard over the years is the decline of donations and giving to churches, and sometimes the blame is the increase of non-profit organizations and charities. Maybe this is exactly where donations should be going. And maybe there are opportunities for community involvement beyond one’s circle of friends this way. We can still stress the importance of social justice and mission work in this home-grown movement, but instead of volunteering at the local church building, we would encourage people to get involved in the community organizations outside of the church. In addition, many of these organizations are already supported by religious organizations—many times ecumenically or even by interfaith bodies—growing the movement of social justice ministry beyond one church, one denomination, even beyond Christianity.
This shift is starting to happen now, and we need to dream the church again. We need to dream how we can be part of the new culture, or we will continue to be left behind. Perhaps the future is a new home-grown Christianity, a freelance clergy, and a connection to the greater community. And perhaps, while the community church buildings may disappear, there will still be a place for traditional worship, and not just on the holidays, but for those of us who grew up in church-culture, perhaps we can keep alive the tradition of worshipping in community with strangers and friends. We may be much, much smaller, but I don’t think it will disappear completely. But we must be part of the change, the shift in culture, this new home-grown spirituality, or the traditions and practices of Christian faith will disappear completely.