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By C. K. ROBERTSON
Church PublishingCopyright © 2009 C. K. Robertson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Current Landscape
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall! (Matthew 7:24–27)
At first glance, the Church of the Foolish and the Church of the Wise appear very similar. Both are proud of their rich heritage and nervous about their uncertain future. A visitor might equally exclaim of either, "What a magnificent sanctuary!" while also adding, "Where are all the people?" It is clear, too, that each of these churches boasts a faithful core of members committed to the care of their spiritual home, their treasure. Yet, in both cases the treasure is costly. As New York Review of Books contributor Bill McKibbon notes, "As GM and Ford bear the weight of old union contracts, the mainline churches bow under the weight of big brick edifices built in an earlier day" (January 17, 2008).
Indeed, the expense of maintaining magnificent old buildings has increased considerably through the years even as membership—and the income associated with membership—has declined considerably. In the early 1990s, researcher George Barna noted in The Frog in the Kettle, "As the elderly pass away, they are being replaced in the church by generations who have less loyalty to religion, to denominations, to the local churches with which they affiliate and to the very notion of being a formal member of a church." This trend has only increased in the early years of the twenty-first century, as Barna notes in his more recent Revolution. Yes, the Church of the Foolish and the Church of the Wise indeed face many similar challenges. Both begin at the same point of origin. It is what they choose to do from there that sets them apart!
The Church of the Foolish does what it has always done: it begs for more money from people who perhaps never truly understood why they gave to begin with, other than for the sake of loyalty. After all, if you belong to a club, you pay the dues. The Church of the Foolish hosts its annual stewardship dinner, because that is what it has always done. In recent years, the church leaders have begun to use prepackaged programs like "The Dogsled Direct." Making the parish hall look and feel like the Arctic (which is not difficult, given the higher heating bills!), a good meal is served, tales are recounted, and a couple of vestry members tell how much this church means to them. And, of course, the treasurer stands up and shows a chart that illustrates how expenses have risen 20 percent, and both salary and insurance rates for a fulltime clergyperson have skyrocketed, and things look as dire as they could ever imagine. And then the stewardship chair passes the Dogsled bags out to the people. All this to make the request for money a bit more palatable.
The Church of the Wise faces similar difficulties, but its leaders realize that a new program is not the answer to the larger, long-term problems they face. They refuse to settle for "coyote thinking." I am referring here to the familiar cartoon, in which the wily coyote is always thinking of new ways to snare the seemingly naïve, but ultimately triumphant roadrunner. Hardly unintelligent, the coyote is, in fact, quite innovative and resourceful. He continually comes up with creative stratagems and always utilizes the latest gadgetry (thanks to the endless supplies and instant shipping provided by the Acme Warehouse). The problem with "coyote thinking" is not a lack of ideas, but the inability to review and change one's foundational principles. What amazing things might happen if the coyote decided to become a vegetarian, or even place a take-out order with the local café! All the energy that the coyote expends in his single-minded goal of catching the roadrunner could then be directed toward more creative pursuits, accomplishing great things that remain unimaginable—and thus unattainable—as long as he remains stuck in his familiar paradigm of "catch the roadrunner."
Unlike their Foolish Church neighbors down the street, the leaders of the Church of the Wise have made a conscious decision not to be coyotes in their thinking. Instead, in the language of futurist Joel Barker, they act as paradigm pioneers, visionaries who are unafraid to change direction, chart a new course, and ask hard questions. Instead of simply repeating the old refrain, "We wish our church would grow," these wise pioneers go further and ask: "We say we want to grow, but what do we mean by growth? If we are talking about adding new members, who is it that we want to attract? We say we want families with young children, but do we know what kind of changes that might mean for us? And why do we want to grow? Do we simply want to increase our financial giving base? Are we trying to recapture a past from our nostalgic remembrances? Do we see our congregation as an aging group whose membership needs to be replenished? Or do we find ourselves driven by a gospel imperative to reach out to the unbelieving and the unchurched?" And then there is the issue of how: "What will it really take to grow? What changes will we need to implement right now, and what changes will occur as a result of subsequent growth?" The leaders of the Church of the Wise are willing to ask these tough questions.
More than this, they are willing to take a good long look both in the mirror and also outside their walls. In his book Transforming Congregations for the Future, Loren Mead of the Alban Institute asserts that we make "idols out of our structures" while failing to ask why the church has "slipped off the radar screens" of so many people in our society. His strong challenge is to acknowledge that we cannot respond to the issues we face as God's ambassadors by doing what we have always done. It is interesting that business leaders have long understood that to which we in the church seem to be oblivious, that past success is the greatest obstacle to future success. This is the exact opposite of what we usually believe: if it worked then, it will work now. But this is simply another form of coyote thinking. Why should we expect past ways and means to work today when we ourselves have changed, individually and corporately? As long as we are focused solely on the protection of what we have or the return to the successes of whatever golden age we recall, we will miss the opportunities of mission and ministry before us. As a wise senior warden once told me, "If there was a golden age, I must have blinked and missed it!" We can celebrate our heritage, learn from our heritage, but we must never get stuck in it.
* * *
One size does not fit all when it comes to shoes. How much more is this true of people! The Book of Common Prayer speaks of "all sorts and conditions" of people, and yet many churches ignore the importance of differences, especially generational differences. A pledge program or capital campaign that works for someone in their sixties will not likely work for someone in their forties, much less someone in their twenties. Researchers separate people into various generational groupings to designate their characteristics and differences. While these groups clearly represent some generalizations that do not accurately describe all those within the respective categories, there are some consistent patterns in the groups which are worth noting:
* Elders: (also known as Builders and the G.I. Generation). Characterized by Tom Brokaw as "the greatest generation," these are the people who came of age during the Great Depression and the World War II and Korean War years. They are marked by respect for authority, brand loyalty, commitment to save (money), obligation to family (including extended family), traditional values and roles, desire for higher education for their children, and a tendency to stay in one locale ("the family home"). * Baby Boomers: Born during the postwar baby boom between 1945 and 1963, these are often known as the "Children of the Sixties." Their defining memories are not World War II but the Vietnam conflict, not FDR but JFK, not Big Band but rock and roll. The most educated generation in American history to that point, these are the progeny of parents who still lived largely traditional roles and spoke of giving their children "the things they did not have." Boomers are marked by their questioning of authority, a hunger for a deep and meaningful spirituality, and the importance of personal relevance. * Generation X: The so-called Gen Xer was born during the Age of Aquarius and then came of age during Reaganomics and the rise of neo-conservativism. Witnessing the results of their older siblings' excesses and the domestication of that previous generation's idealism, these baby Gen Xers are strong realists, recognizing the importance of personal control over finances, health care, and retirement. They have more income, yet far less time, and they often complain of stress and burnout. Small groups and a few intimate friends are crucial, while group memberships with demands on time and energy are avoided. * Millennials: Also known as Generation Y or Mosaics, this is the most recent group to arrive, and the first generation in a very long time to have a predicted future look more bleak than that of their parents, though technologically, they are the most savvy.
Researchers have become much more insistent that we take seriously the considerable differences between generations, especially when focusing on matters involving group membership, time commitments, and financial giving. Note the following statistics from the Barna research group (www.barna.org):
* Millennials are much less likely than any other generation to volunteer time to their church: 12 percent of Millennials report volunteering in the past week, while conversely, 23 percent of Gen Xers, 29 percent of Boomers, and 34 percent of Elders have volunteered in the past week. * Small-group participation appears to be positively correlated with age, with 26 percent of Elders, 24 percent of Boomers, 19 percent of Gen Xers, and 20 percent of Millennials reporting that they participated in a small group in the past week. * Compared to 60 percent of Builders who have a private prayer/devotional time during the week, 54 percent of Boomers, 39 percent of Gen Xers, and 35 percent of Millennials do the same. * 33 percent Millennials, 43 percent of Gen Xers, 49 percent of Boomers, and 53 percent of Elders attend church on a given Sunday. * In a typical week, 32 percent of Millennials, 42 percent of Gen Xers, 47 percent of Boomers, and 58 percent of Elders read the Bible. * In a given week, 65 percent of Millennials, 82 percent of Gen Xers, 90 percent of Boomers, and 88 percent of Elders (Builders and Seniors) report praying to God. * Boomers emerge as more likely (53 percent) and Millennials as less likely (33 percent) than any other generation to be report being "born again" (with 38 percent of Gen Xers and 48 percent of Elders). * Millennials are the least likely age group to indicate that faith is a very important part of their life: only 51 percent of Millennials say their faith is very important in their life, compared with 62 percent of Gen Xers, 73 percent of Boomers, and 79 percent of Elders. * Gen Xers are more likely than the other generations to be searching for meaning in life: 44 percent of Gen Xers compared to 32 percent of all others. * Gen Xers are the generation most likely to feel "too busy": 53 percent of Gen Xers maintain that they are too busy, compared to 49 percent of Boomers, and less than 32 percent of Elders. * Financial comfort appears to come with age: 38 percent of Gen Xers say they are personally struggling with finances, compared to the 32 percent of Boomers, and less than 23 percent of Elders. * Gen Xers are almost twice as likely as Elders to indicate that they are "stressed out" (41 percent to less than 27 percent). Likewise, 32 percent of Boomers said that "stressed out" is an accurate description of them.
What is perhaps most interesting about these statistics is how little attention is paid to them by most mainline churches. As a result, congregations continue to use a one-size-fits-all approach to much of what they do, including stewardship. A letter goes out to everyone asking for an increase in their pledges—a single letter saying the same thing. A person gets in the pulpit and tells a story about why pledging is so important to them—one story being told to everyone at once. Yet, as suggested above, the methods and the words that an Elder will appreciate are not likely going to work in the same way with a Boomer or Gen Xer. A more holistic approach to stewardship and education is not only wise, but absolutely necessary. If this is important in terms of the members we already have, it is even more imperative when we begin to look at the people who have not yet come in our doors.
In the years immediately preceding the new century, Lyle Schaller, author of The Seven-Day-a-Week Church, looks ahead to speak of the importance of churches focusing on the needs and desires of the unchurched population. There is a desperate need, Schaller goes on to say, for "entrepreneurial, visionary, skilled, energetic, enthusiastic, and persistent" church leaders. Indeed, for far too long mainline churches have appeared to be sleeping giants, displaying little energy for mission imperatives and evangelism. Wise leaders, pioneering leaders, must understand the nature of the people who are not attending their services. Lee Strobel, in his book Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary, paints a picture of the unchurched individual:
* More commonly male than female. * Either single or married to a person of another religious background. * More likely to live in a western state. * Slightly younger median age than the average American. * Slightly higher median income than the average American. * More education than the norm.
* Almost always some church experience in their background.
The issue is not necessarily that these unchurched individuals are against church. It simply is not relevant in their lives at all. While living in Britain in the 1990s, I discovered a post-religious culture in which at least two generations had no experience within a worship facility apart from baptisms (or "christenings," as they are called there), weddings, and, of course, funerals. The same parish church that is filled to capacity on a Saturday for the funeral of a local villager would be almost completely empty the next day for the weekly service. After a delightful chat on a bus with a man who lived in my village, my closing words, "I look forward to seeing you again soon," were met with a vehement, "Oh, I hope not!" Seeing my surprise, he immediately explained, "If I see you again, it means that someone must have died!" Churches still host many weddings, but more and more "civil unions" are being held in gardens, halls, or homes, and an increasing amount of cohabitating couples see little need for formalizing their relationships at all. Even with baptisms/christenings, churches have begun to see a downturn, as a growing number of people are promoting "naming ceremonies" held in pubs or restaurants, celebrating a new birth without making any specific religious promises or commitments. All this is to say that although there are still active, vital congregations in Britain, their numbers have declined dramatically.
Excerpted from Transforming Stewardship by C. K. ROBERTSON Copyright © 2009 by C. K. Robertson . Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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