I have had a hunch for the last ten years or so that something has been going on in the church. I remember the early post Y2K era. I was spoon-feeding my faith on church hopping. I was on a mission to fins a church home.
I went to mega churches, house churches, mainline denominational churches, non-denominational churches, and once went to a Messianic Temple that meet in a strip mall. I went to a lot of churches.
I was like an addict searching for a fix. Only my drug was Jesus H. Christ. My gear included a well worn NIV Bible, a hunger for the Word, and some clouded ideas of a faith beyond my fading evangelical norms.
I wore costumes to these various churches. I took out all of my piercings and covered my tattoos with a new GAP button-down shirt and a pair of chinos the first time I went to the Presbyterian Church that eventually became my church home. I raided Barry Manilow’s closet as I sported a look to numerous churches in hopes to be accepted and loved.
I can say with the benefit of hindsight that I was accepted in most places. I would be greeted and introduced to who ever had some kind of connection to prison or recovery ministries. Unfortunately, for that person I was not in recovery or have I ever been to prison. I once saw a film about Naval Aviators but that does not make me a sailor.
My point is my physical presence somehow challenged the folks that were already there at the church. The church I ended up hanging my hat at loved me. The pastor did all they could to reach out to me and shepherd me to health. The congregation loved on me very much. I fondly remember them and the relationships I was blessed to forge.
There were some strange folks that had no idea how to engage me. It was no different than my real life strangeness that hung on my family tree. Not everyone can have a moped-riding cousin with a jacket that has elastic bands that hold a twelve-pack! We are just lucky like that.
This church was the first time as an adult I was able to engage in a healthy way the church as a family, with all its bumps and bruises. I still long for that church and those people where my faith was refined and I first awakened to this hunch I am talking about.
There was a sense of adventure and daring. This church was heavily invested in the youth around it. Youth played a heavy role in the life of the church. I would say that the congregation was entirely oriented around the youth that lived in the community and hung out at the church.
The budget reflected its commitment to the youth and to the future church. There was never a difficulty in finding volunteers to cook meals, chaperon events, or mentor the faith of the youth at the church. As part of the staff there I was supported well. I got affirmation and love t-from the oversight committee all the time.
I accepted this as the norm and expected that this is how the church must operate. If the church wanted to bear witness to the Kingdom of God it would need to stay serious about investing its resources to the youth. This was proven time and time again in my time there.
Then I became a missionary and went to seminary. I talked shop for a few years. I volunteered here and there. I even helped plant a church my senior year in seminary. I interned at a couple small rural churches in Central Oklahoma. I got exposed to realities that differed from my almost Pollyanna vision of the church I encountered in Los Angeles.
That hunch awakened and I realized I was not alone in that hunch. The church wanted me to be a leader. The church wanted “us” to come in, bring our friends, marry and have families, and take over the beautiful churches that they had built. There was only one problem, when we came we were not all that welcomed. Well, we were welcomed but we were not invited to be a part of the church as much as we were expected to come in and replace the aging cogs of church with our new, youthful, spirited cogs and do the work of the church.
When that happened we left. Not just laity but clergy has left. We do not have the energy to continue to serve two masters. We do not have the ability to work two full time jobs. We are being asked to maintain the church of yesterday as we plant the seeds, nurture the seeds, and harvest the seeds of tomorrow.
This does not describe all the churches out there. It does describe enough situations out there that I pray we as the church pays it mind. That hunch I have had for the last decade is real. The church is killing itself. The church has been slowly asphyxiating itself on the traditions of the past.
As we struggle and seek that answer to fix the decline of the mainline church we have forgot to invest in the leaders, the people of the church of tomorrow. I know there are programs that offer education and support to some that may equip them to do great ministry. I love these programs. I am not sure it is enough.
What would happen if we focused on digital first? What would happen if we focused all of our resources towards the next generation of faith?
We are operating out of fear of provision and serving a church that has little chance in reaching out in to the great digital divide. We focus on maintaining and supporting the systems we have in place. “If we do X we will lose donors.” I have bad news those donors will die and be lost and when they are who will stand in the gap?
My hunch is that the church that shall exist in the future will be small, socially active, intentional, intimate, low-cost, and have little overhead. I am sure there will be churches that will not look like this. I think there will always be a place for big ass churches. I am sure that new growth will not emerge until the old passes on and fertilizes the seeds they have planted. I pray the Reforming Church does not forget the Always Reforming part and death is part of that reforming.