Missional

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

 Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi


Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.


Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.

Ministry in the Conversation...

By Rev. Mindi

In most congregations I know, if a ministry event or program got down to being just two or three people (and one of them was the pastor), they would probably look to end it soon. And until a year ago, I would probably have done the same thing.

We began our Pub Theology ministry just over two years ago, when I began at my current congregation. More accurately, we joined another congregation’s Young Adults group in the city and met with them at least once a month. Then we received a grant between the two congregations, and decided to start a new location closer to us. The idea was to grow and expand and have new folks join in and start new pub theology ministries. For a while it worked, we had other locations and folks joining us from Meetup and other online sites. Fast forward two years, and the other church group doesn’t meet anymore, and the other locations have faded out, but we still meet. Although we have had as many as fifteen, we are most often down to five or less, and sometimes just two or three. And there have been a couple of times I have been the only one.

I mentioned to my Pastoral Relations Committee once that it might be time to pull the plug on this ministry. “Oh please don’t,” a member told me. “Even if it is just you that are there, you are there on behalf of the rest of us.” Me, having a beer—or more likely, a Diet Coke—and waiting for people who will not show up that evening. No, I disagreed with her. But she continued.

“You see, I know someone who doesn’t go to church and thinks the church is just a hypocritical place. But when I told her about our Pub Theology, she listened. She said she could go to a church like that someday. And I keep inviting her and one day she will come with me. But until then—you never know who you might meet.”

It’s true, I don’t. And if I stop going, there is no opportunity.

However, I’ve stopped thinking of our Pub Theology ministry as an outreach opportunity—except for the fact that twice a month, we tip our server generously and are a witness that there are still good, kind people in the world who happen to be from a church.

Instead, I’ve seen it as a place where ministry happens in the conversation, and these kind of conversations just don’t happen in the church that we are used to. 

One of our attendees brought a friend one day who remarked that we got off-topic really quickly. Every week I bring a question or a thought to begin the conversation, and we stick with it maybe five minutes. We try to get back to it but inevitably are sidetracked. Sometimes those attending feel bad that we got sidetracked. I don’t. Unless it is someone railroading the conversation, I welcome those side trails to the discourse. That’s where I learn about relationships, work, values, goals in life, dreams that have been delayed or died, broken relationships, sorrow, joy—you name it. That’s where the real ministry is taking place, in these conversations about the lives we lead. We’ve gotten to know each other on a much deeper level than we have on Sunday morning during worship and coffee hour, or during Bible study, or any other traditional church ministry activity.

In some ways I wish we’d stop calling it Pub Theology or whatever phrase we are using, because the theological discourse—while interesting (our topic last night was hell, whether there is one or not) rarely scratches the surface. What does dig deeper is talking about our lives. And it’s there that we find the harder questions to ask and answer.

We’ve had as many as five in recent weeks, or as few as two, but they still come. And I love these meetings so much and I’m so glad that my congregation understands that they are not full of people all the time, but they are leading to fuller life.  And as one attendee said a few weeks ago: “This is Church. Right here, right now. And it’s church on Sunday morning, too. But this is no less church for me here than there.”

Losing to Gain

By Rev. Mindi

I was called to a small church two and a half years ago, a church that promised a two-year agreement but couldn’t go beyond that because they would surely run out of money. They were in do or die mode, and it was going to be an incredible challenge. It was a congregation that met for Sunday School, worship, coffee hour, and once a month, a potluck supper and a board meeting.

Here we are, two and a half years later, beyond that two-year mark. We’re not much better off financially, but now we have a thriving Young Adult’s group that meets twice a month for Pub Theology, a restarted women’s group that meets monthly for lunch and to support local and global missions, and now an after-school tutoring program for students in need and we are preparing to do a summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Except for the women’s group, the other three ministries received grant funds. We have also started a community organic garden, an annual Easter Egg Hunt, and participated in many more local missions and community events.

The truth is we still are hanging on the edge of financial sustainability, but the congregation seems to be doing well. We are in this together. We are struggling together and working to give more and to do more in the community, rather than sitting on what we have to survive. It’s been exciting to see.

Sadly, far too often churches, missions and ministries are cut short, told it is because of a lack of funding, but often it is a lack of vision. The inability to perceive beyond what is in front of them, the building closes, the congregation’s members are told to move on, the mission is dissolved, the ministry ends. But what is shocking is that often these churches, missions, and ministries end with thousands—sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even a few stories I have heard with seven figures—left in the bank. 

 

Did we not learn our lesson from Jesus’s Parable of the Talents?

I was talking with a colleague of mine who has started many churches, and he let me in on a secret: sometimes it is better to go forward with vision and little to no money, than to have money and a lack of vision, which often equates to money with strings attached.  Those strings may be an old guard vision of what church is or a perceived intention of the original givers, rather than being open to the movement of the Spirit in the here and now and the potential for ministry right in front of us.

A wise professor once told me that Jesus does not like big bank accounts on churches. It means we are not using God’s resources as God intended—to fulfill the needs of our neighbors in this world and to continue to share the Good News of God’s Love. But all too often, money sits in bank accounts and churches, missions and ministries close.

I’m really proud of the little congregation I have been called to. They don’t have much, but they are doing a lot with the little they have. And somehow, grant funds have come through and we’ve been able to do more than we could imagine. Even when it comes to the resource of time and people-power—we ended up receiving a couple of volunteers from the community and parents of students willing to volunteer and work with us. The more we dream and act, the more we seem to be able to do—and the worries over finances, while still there, seem less and less every day. God isn’t through with us yet. While we don’t know what the future holds, and maybe we’ve just postponed the closing date—no one can say we sat around worried about losing what we have any longer.

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

Opening words . . .

By Shane Isner

I crowd-sourced this fall’s sermon series on Facebook, and received great responses.  Thanks Facebook friends!  My setup was simple: “Say an unnamed pastor wants to preach on ‘tough questions’, what should s/he ask?”  Spoiler alert: the unnamed preacher was me.  Strangely, my friends figured that out quick.  And their wonderful responses re-taught me an important lesson for us religious types.

You see, I can separate my Facebook network into three categories.  First, there’s my family.  Then, church contacts and colleagues.  Finally, I have what I’ll endearingly describe as “Shane’s heathen college buddies.”

About that last group- I attended church some as an undergraduate, but not too much, and most of my pals weren’t religious.  They still aren’t.  But they’re great people- most of them- ethically considerate, spiritually interested, compassion rich.  And like a majority of college-educated young adults, they have little time for church.

Or, to put the point more finely, little interest in “organized religion.”  That isn’t news, of course.  But one effect of that worldview has consequences for church attendees, which played out on my Facebook page.  People from all three friends’ categories contributed.  Those already engaged in church asked questions like, “How can the Bible help me be a better parent?” or “What about predestination?”  My unchurched chums sounded different, however, asking, “What’s up with sexism and religion?”  Or “How can anyone hope to understand the Will of an Omni-whatever Being?”

Now, it’s not like these diverse, lovely inquirers had wildly different concerns.  Many people accustomed to parking their butts in pews on Sunday mornings, and those preferring park benches, wonder about evil, ecology, suffering, death, life, forgiveness, etc.  What struck me was the dissimilar tone of their queries, their disparate starting points.  A subtle, but distinct-seeming language of ‘Insider v. Outsider’ emerged.

After all, let’s be honest: If you’re not an already committed Christian, it’s probably not interesting to wonder, “What must The Church do to stay relevant?”  A curiosity, maybe, but not an immediate problem.  Or you’d ask the question skeptically, saying to your (that’s-really-your-job??!) pastor/buddy, “Hasn’t modern science made religion outdated?” Or “Isn’t the Bible too old to be relevant?”  Maybe it is, friend.  Touché.

In other words, while good Christian souls have recently watched a slow erosion in our numbers, some have wondered whether we’re suffering, fundamentally, from an image problem.  That’s particularly true in churches like ours- not-Evangelical, moderate-minded, open.  The thinking goes, “Hey, our values aren’t very different from many who don’t spend Sundays in worship.  If only they knew that…through a better marketing campaign, or something…we’d start growing, right?”  There’s something to that.  It’s one reason for this sermon series.  I figured that if we advertised to neighbors that we ask similar questions as they do, maybe they’d pay us a visit.

Then, I collected submissions, and it turns out, we might not be asking similar questions.  Have Christians grown so accustomed to being “Insiders” we no longer address our neighbors’ concerns?  Perhaps so.  Not in every situation, but often enough to matter.  And if so, then whatever “outreach” we attempt could fall on deaf ears.  Because we’ll sound deaf, to the hurts and hopes of local families, to the doubts and ideas of potential friends.  Not because we’re indifferent, or don’t share similar wonderings, but because we’re not seeing faith from these others’ perspective.

And that means we’re not acting like Jesus.  If there was one marketing ploy Jesus perfected, it was crafting his message in terms and stories that non-Disciples identified with instinctively.  Was he that glorious and brilliant?  Well, sure, but he also did one thing consistently well: He cared what was happening in the lives of those he wanted to serve, and aimed his efforts, his ministry at that directly.  He was no guardian of Insider Language.  He wasn’t concerned with solving The Church’s problems.  He worried more about people’s problems, and how his truth could illuminate theirs.  

So I adapted our questions for this fall to sound more like my college buddies than my Christian friends.  Not because one is better, but I’m betting we’ll connect more with new people if we start from where they already are.


Rev. Shane Isner is the pastor of a small Disciples of Christ church in the northwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.  He serves on several community non-profit boards, is the chair of his region's Commission on Ministry, loves his wife and his dog, and Jesus.  And the church!

Moving out of Ecclesiology, into Koinology

By John O'Keefe

In my upcoming book, The Naked Jesus; a Journey out of Christianity,[1] I bring out an idea that some have talked about, but I’ve seen very little, if anything, written about. The idea is our need to move from the institutional weight behind the concept of Ecclesiology, based on the word ekklēsiā (a legal term), to the lighter, more connective community-oriented idea behind what can be seen as Koinology, based on the word Koinonia (a personal/spiritual term). We should be moving away from the ideas, and theologies, behind Ecclesiology and be ready to dance into the ideas, and theologies, behind the idea of Koinology.

Why?

There are many reasons, not the least of which is that the term Ecclesiology has less to do with people, and more to do with building. The term “Ecclesiology” is a word developed in the 1840’s and it was used to describe the science, decoration and architecture behind building a church building, it was never intended to define a people; it dealt with the physical structure of a building. Sure, over the past few decades (since about 1940) we have strived to make it a theology of the church but, since its roots are connected to a building, connecting the idea to a people seems like forcing a round peg into a square whole. While koinonia is a word that centers on people; it centers on the spirituality of connection and common unity. Koinology is about people and how we connect to each other and the Divine.

Koinonia brings us to the idea and theology of Koinology; when we translate the word into English (which is very hard because of the spiritual weight behind the term) we see a theology that centers on community, a joint partnership and deep intimacy with the Divine and each other. While the term koinonia is hard to translate into English with just a simple word, koinonia speaks of community, common unity, communion, joint participation, sharing, and a deep intimacy. It is a word that has a deep spiritual meaning behind it – so, Koinology seems to be the natural expression of a “theology of a community of faith.”

Now, I’m not self-centered enough to believe that the word Koinology came from a firing of neurons in my limited mind; in fact I know I didn’t come from me. The use of the word Koinology dates back to 1899 in the writings of Isacc Althaus Loos in "Studies in the Politics of Aristotle and the Republic, volume 1, issue 1-2." Loos brings out the idea of Koinology and suggests the term should be used in the study of Sociology when speaking in terms of human relationships: family, villages, communities and tribes. Granted, it has not been adopted by sociologists (if you do a Google Ngram on the work Koinology, you’ll get a message that tells you the word can’t be found), but it’s a term that we, as followers, should adopt for how we see the “theology of a community of faith.”

The central focus of Koinology is on the spiritual relationship of Communion, and how communion bonds the community to the Divine in some very intimate ways. This bonding brings about a deeper level of intimacy between members of the community. It can be seen as a point in which we pivot from our worldly view of self, to a desire to see the world through the eyes of the Divine and embrace one another at the common table of Communion.

Koinology can be seen as a joining together between humanity and the Divine. It is defined by our joint partnership in creation, community, and self. In this realization of Communion, in holding common unity, which we realize has little to do with what we posses, but what we share with others that invites us to live in amazing joy. It removes the idea of a building, and speaks only about people and their relationship to each other and the Divine. When we share, give, we live in a powerful understanding of embracing the relationship of grace, and we develop a lasting interconnected relationship that spans time and spaces. We hold not only common possessions, but common interests; we seek a higher level of intimacy, thinking and understanding of our interaction with each other. We see our lives intertwined (bound together) become more and more centered on the divine and each other. This bond brings to life the reality that we move past demanding thoughts and actions. We seek to generate good for others, and in turn others seek the greater good for us. Because we don’t seek control, we seek to serve and not demand to be served.

Koinology is the place where we see the hungry being fed, where we see the marginalized lifted, where we see voting booths open to all who desire to vote; it is a place where the powerful realize they have no power, and develop a servant heart. Moving from Ecclesiology to Koinology moves us from a powerbase to a gracebase, where love is spoken. Koinology does not lend itself well to a systematic thought, or process. While this will mean we will need to retool our thoughts, I am a believer that by doing so we can redefine what it means to be a Community of Faith.


[1] Release date is June 15, 2014

The Wrong Question

By Rev. Mindi

A post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” has gone, as they say, viral. There are several posts out there responding to Evans as well, ranging the gambit from she’s absolutely right to completely disagreeing with her reasons of why they are leaving.

However, I think it’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s the right question from her point of view—growing up in the South, coming from an evangelical background—but for those of us coming from the mainline, it’s the wrong question for us to ask.  Because Millennials, like many Gen Xers before them, haven’t been in the church to begin with.

I’m one of those stuck-in-the-middle generations, on the late end of Gen X, but if you ask my husband who is five years old than me, especially when we reference music tastes of the 80’s and 90’s he sees me as more Millennial than Gen X, whereas people a few years younger than me see me as Gen X and not Millennial. Us late 70’s babies are caught in the gap, but we have experienced what has happened in both generations to some degree.

Most of us in the gap have parents who are Boomers or late-Boomers. Other Gen Xers parents were from the Silent Generation or early Boomers. While we don’t all stick with our generation typecasting, people who grew up in the Silent Generation and Early Boomers still went to church on a regular basis and raised their kids to do so.  During the Depression and WWII, church was the refuge for the poor and the place to pray during the ultimate crisis of war.  The church had a prominent role in people’s lives because there was nowhere else to go. People who grew up in those years turned around and raised their children in the church. Church was steadfast. When the world didn’t make sense, the church made sense of the world. Church was the center of hope.  The Silent Generation that suffered together during the Depression and sacrificed together during WWII was loyal to the church that had remained.

But the Boomers grew up without that connection to the suffering and sacrifice, without the recognition of the church as a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a time of utter turmoil and hopelessness of the Depression and the War. Church was something they had to do because their parents raised them in it. Church became the place of conformity, of rigidity, of unchanging in a changing world. In fact, many of the reasons shared in Evans’ piece of why Millennial are leaving remind me of what I have heard from those growing up in the 60’s in mainline, mostly white churches in the U.S., perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree. The church of my grandfather that had been a place of hope and encouragement and where people banded together to know they weren’t alone in life’s struggles, was a place of stifling conformity for my mother and her generation.

And what I know of many of my peers, us late-GenXers and into the Millennial, is that our parents decided not to raise us in church (my mother changed her mind when I was nine and brought us back to the church). Our parents decided they didn’t want to force on us what they felt was forced on them. Our parents wanted to give us the freedom to choose, and in doing so, we opted out. But we were never really given the option of staying in because, except for Christmas and Easter and maybe other special occasions, we never went. Or, if our parents had a better relationship with the church when they were growing up, we were given the option upon our baptism or confirmation. So ironically, we would make our statement of faith in the church and then never return.  The option of staying was never really taken serious enough by our parents to begin with.

I think the challenge for many of us in mainline church leadership today is not how to keep Millennials from leaving the church, nor how to get Millennials back into the church, but rather, how do we pass on our faith in ways that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past two generations? How do we pass on a faith that allows for questions and exploration while at the same time gives a grounding for hope and assurance?

Thankfully, and hopefully for our future, we won’t have another Great Depression followed by a World War that would cause our country to be in such upheaval that everyone’s daily lives are affected by it. There probably won’t be another scenario in the U.S. in which so many people felt the pressure of the depression and then the war, including the notion of self-sacrifice, in which people felt like they were connected more deeply together in the well-being and survival of the country. The church was a centerpiece of hope, a stronghold in the community for grieving, a place where one another’s burdens were shared in a real and tangible way.

But somehow, after the War, we shifted away from this. Instead of the church being the place everyone turned to for stability, the church became a place of control and conformity, at least among Euro-American white churches (note the very different role of the black church in the Civil Rights movements during the same period of time, and that assumptions made about who is leaving the church are generally speaking about Euro-American churches).  And it’s no wonder that our parents didn’t want to bring us up in a church that was conforming and boring, or at least wanted to give us a choice about it because they felt they did not have a choice.  The church had lost out being a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a world of change, and instead, to keep that image up, turned to control and conformity within its own structure.

I’m not a church historian. But it seems to me this great shift happened more than a generation ago and is not a Millennial issue.  And if we want to know how to reach out to those who have had little or no grounding in the church and do not seem to see any reason at all to attend church, perhaps we need to rethink church (again, a topic of many viral posts, including posts on this site).

When we look back at Acts 2 and 4, we see a model of a church in which people come together and share what they have with each other.  Worship was not a separate act of their daily lives, but rather a communal act in which prayers were shared, bread was broken, and possessions shared with those who had need. Perhaps we just need to dream it up again, a way of being community that is beyond what we are doing now but not so far out of reach. And, as I’ve shared in my own thoughts on this matter here before, I hope we don’t make the assumption that those outside of the church have no community, let alone a spiritual community. Let’s not go rush out and offer community without observing the community that may already exist.  Instead, perhaps we can come together, insiders and outsiders, church and unchurched, and dream something new together, and find a way to pass down our faith that includes opportunities for change and choice without having to chuck the whole thing. We need to build up that kind of community together that withstands the challenges of the world and offers hope, a sense of belonging, and is steadfast in a world of constant change, without changing steadfastness into conformity.  We need to live out our theology in a way that shows hope, faith, and love, that also does not require conformity, rigidity and condemnation of others.