Archive for the 'Survival' Category

“One Generation Away?” Don’t You Believe It!

“Christianity is always just one generation away from extinction”.–Someone

It sounds so true that it must be true. Wherever we turn, we see aging, graying, declining churches. These profound, oft-repeated words must have come from someone very wise. But I couldn’t remember that wise saint’s name. Neither could Google. Turns out it may well have been “someone”, as in “Someone has said…”

“…one generation away from extinction…” is a favorite chant of the prophets of doom-and-gloom. They resurrect this tired cliché to launch every guilt trip about real or perceived failure to reach children, youth, and their families. Trouble is, the statement is inaccurate, misleading, and just plain wrong. For starters, it leaves God out of the equation. The next sentence is  usually some variation on “If we don’t reach and train our young people…” –in “the way we’ve always done it”. Bringing God into the equation means we stop, look, and pay attention to the “new thing” God wants to do in our ministries with younger people (Isaiah 43:19). How about less whining and more daring-to-trust-God with the impossibilities before us?

“…one generation away from extinction…” generates far more survival anxiety than missional passion. Just ask former members of the thousands of churches that close annually1. When our defining question becomes “What do we need to preserve our institution?”, we’ve become terminally self-centered. We lack sufficient missional passion to thrive. Missional passion asks boldly, “How can we partner in what God is already doing here? What does it mean for us to ‘…make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world’ within our reach?” Missional passion boldly asks risky, transformational questions—and then boldly trusts God for resources to accomplish God’s dream for the people and places within our reach.

And “…one generation away…” denies the healthy reality of most local churches. We are multi-generational communities. At our best we reflect the demographic makeup of our neighborhoods. Granted, churches that look very different from their communities need to take a closer look at that imbalance. It may be pointing to a mission field! In many settings the youngest generations are the ones under-represented. (There’s the grain of truth!) But the church’s fate never rests with a single generation. It lies in the interaction among generations. Authentic intergenerational community releases a divine chemistry of wisdom, experience, energy, creativity, tradition, and an understanding of how to relate to our neighbors here and now.  Read all about it in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:1-16. The gifted, Spirit-powered community we call “the Body of Christ” envisions a wider ministry. The immediate focus may be “one generation”, one ethnic group, or some other aspect of their context. That multigenerational  faith community prays, learns, adjusts, sacrifices, invests itself and its resources, and risks in order to share the good news of Jesus with these new persons and groups.

I heard this “…one generation away from extinction” nonsense once again recently. It was just noise on a Christian music station. But it came up about the time I began an extended engagement with this “one generation”. I was begged invited to help lead our church’s Confirmation classes for middle-school youth. It’s one of the best things I’ve done in a long time. Many Christian churches invite youth to “confirm” as their own the faith they’ve been taught by their parents and church. Confirmation classes provide an environment where youth can consider together the faith and values upon which they’ll build their lives. We explore in depth the basics of Christian faith and the United Methodist style of Christianity. We want students to know what it means to follow Jesus in a congregation like ours. We help them begin spiritual habits they can use for a lifetime. We link each youth with an adult mentor who’s an experienced Christian. And we try to be real about the challenges they’ll encounter on this life-long faith journey. Our goal is to equip these youth to choose freely, intelligently, and responsibly. Their best decision right now could be “Not now”, “I want to know more,” or even “No thanks”. It’s crucial that every Yes be a wholehearted YES! We want students to see Confirmation as “Commencement” rather than “Graduation”. Confirmation is a rite of passage. If it’s “graduation”, then you’ve learned all you need to know. But Confirmation as “commencement” is a new beginning of increasingly mature discipleship. You’ll be learning and growing the rest of your life.

The twelve middle-schoolers in our class display all the unique behavior expected of their age and stage—for better and (rarely) for worse.  Their openness and curiosity are refreshing. They’re intelligent and engaged. They complete their homework and make up missed classes. They participate eagerly in class and ask thoughtful questions. They’re developing relationships with adult mentors and with other adults in the various ministries where they serve. They’re discovering their place in the bigger picture. They understand the church places a high priority on the Confirmation process. Youth and their parents have made clear commitments to class attendance, worship attendance, and church and community service. Students see their parents and other adults providing support that ranges from food to transportation to the mentors’ daily prayer and at-least weekly contact with their students.

Our class is a living example of another piece of Someone’s wisdom: “Christian faith is caught more than it is taught.” Teaching discipleship happens through the day–by-day life of healthy faith communities. Elders teach the depth of the faith, the richness of tradition, the way it’s brought them through tough times. Children and youth teach simple joy and trust. When our walk doesn’t match our talk, they call us out—or they walk the walk and wonder why we’re lagging behind! They help us understand contemporary culture. Their curiosity drives us to find fresh ways to share our faith with new generations.

“…One generation away from extinction…”? Not if we choose missional energy over survival anxiety. Not if we loosen our death-grip on “our church” and embrace what God’s already doing in our neighborhoods; not if we abandon individualistic religion and embrace life together in Christ; not if we follow the Jesus who teaches that truly great disciples seek to serve rather than to be served; not if we invite the Spirit to transform our safe, sterile churches into contagious communities of bold faith, revolutionary hope, and limitless love where “Christianity is caught more than it is taught”.  

1Exact numbers vary widely. Estimates range from 1000 to 5000 or more church closings per year with a rough consensus around 3500-4000 annually in recent years.

 

SURVIVAL WILL KILL YOUR CHURCH (A RANT ON STEWARDSHIP PRACTICES)

It’s Stewardship season again in most churches. At best, church leaders and pastors take time to reflect with their congregations on how God has blessed them and on how God calls them to share those blessings (financial and otherwise) to accomplish what God is calling the congregation to do in the community and beyond.  At less than the best, Stewardship season becomes Survival season.  Pastors and leaders bombard the membership with facts and figures, usually including abundant red ink. “If these trends continue, we can’t keep on much longer.”  “It costs $XXXX per day/week/month/year to run this church. That means each member’s share is $X.  But since some people give little or nothing, the cost per giving individual or family is $XX.” (Naturally you’ll give at least $XX if you’re financially solvent and care about your church.)  Abundant begging, pleading, whining, fear, and guilt augment the sincere but desperate and usually counter-productive effort of concerned leaders to generate minimally-sufficient funding to enable the church to cling by its fingernails to the status quo for at least one more year.

Yes, I overstate the case—but not that much. I’m driven to Ranting because I’ve watched too many congregations, including some I’ve served, employ “less-than-best” stewardship practices year after year with minimal success. This is Stewardship Insanity—“repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting a different result”. I’m Ranting because we know better, but we don’t do better. Both pastors and lay leaders in our churches have been taught better.

For example, four years ago nearly four hundred United Methodist clergy and lay leaders in Arizona and Southern Nevada gathered for a whole day with Clif Christopher , currently one of the brighter lights in this field. All that education didn’t change much. Yes, I know some stories of change and growth. But overall I don’t see “stewardship best practices” more widely and consistently practiced. The leaders of too many congregations still ask members to give so that the church can continue to exist for another year at about the same level. The “ask” isn’t, “Help us change the world.” It’s, “Help us maintain this institution”. Sooner or later in such situations,  the issue escalates from support and maintenance to survival. “Help” becomes “HELP!” When institutional survival becomes the stated or publicly perceived mission of a church, pursuing that survival mission will kill the church.

As I’ve watched, listened, and read in this stewardship season, I’ve found myself asking repeatedly, “Show me the difference my gift to your church would make in someone’s life. Introduce me to people whose lives are better because of your church’s ministry. Describe the impact you’re making outside of your own religious club.” I know churches where concern for institutional maintenance and survival out-shouts the voice straining to tell those compelling stories. I know other churches that tell precious few hopeful stories. Their survival struggle has drained them dry. Faithful, hardworking leaders have tried everything and nothing has worked. Somewhere along the way their focus shifted from “What is God calling us to do and to be here and now?” to “How can we keep our sinking ship afloat?” Mature disciples understand that such a shift has a critical, indeed potentially fatal impact on our spiritual health. A survival-based stewardship emphasis will kill your church—perhaps not this year, or the next, but eventually.

So what does a healthy, biblically sound, “best-practices” stewardship emphasis look like? In a few words:

  • Focus on God’s abundance–God provides all the resources that sustain each of our lives. God provides whatever it takes for us to accomplish the part of God’s mission to which God has called us as ABC Church in this time and place. “…God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9;8 NRSV)
  • Faith-, not fear-based; Mission over maintenance/survival, Present and future focus—If we believe the first point, then we ask: What’s God up to in our neighborhood? How can we get in on the action? Are the greatest days of our church ahead of us or behind us?
  • Tell the story through faces more than facts and figures. A few always want to see numbers and spreadsheets. Most people want to see the faces of our ministry and the difference we’re making. Whose lives does our ministry touch? How are our neighbors’ lives different because of our presence in this community?
  • For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8 RSV)Our giving is our generous, free, and joyful response to God’s Limitless Love poured into our lives through Christ. Purge every trace of “ought” and legalism from your public communications. When we suggest that each member’s share is $X, even when we rigidly demand a 10% tithe, we may inadvertently cap the giving of someone who was ready to do much more. We also imply that lesser gifts are less worthy, which is clearly not the case. Read 2 Corinthians 8-9 and encourage folks into the joyfully free giving that Paul describes.
  • As soon as this year’s stewardship emphasis is complete, next year’s begins. 1) Evaluate both the process and the principles used. How can you move closer to “best practices”? What congregational cultural issues need to be addressed? It will take time to get leaders aboard and make needed changes. 2) How will you teach these principles to the whole congregation through the year? A continuing message throughout the year will be far more effective than a bombardment at the time experienced church folks know they should have their guard up.

END OF RANT—for now. If spreading God’s love through the Church of Jesus Christ is as important as we tell each other it is, why would we ever settle for less than the best of which we are capable? Look your leadership team in the eye, ask one another that question, and dare to answer honestly and prayerfully. For Christ’s sake, don’t let survival kill your church.


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