A longer post this week. I don't have to prepare sermons for Sunday.

Glenview folk, former students, and ministry colleagues have been asking me how it feels to be back in congregational ministry after a time out. I tell them I spent the last six years in a different kind of ministry.

It's true that I left full time congregational leadership in 2008. For awhile I was in part time interim ministry while teaching part time. Then, in 2009, I went into teaching full time. I wasn't leading a congregation. But, through my students, I had fingers and toes in up to 35 pastoral charges across Canada, and in Bermuda, at a time. (Only one was Presbyterian.)

I haven't been away from ministry, but I now see the impact of change on pastoral leadership first hand. I'm also looking back to the 26 years I was in congregational ministry before I went back to school. Some of the changes I'm reflecting on aren't recent, but I see them now in fresh light.

When I was ordained we could still safely assume the truth of those words from "Field of Dreams": "If you build it they will come." Church members put a twist on it: "We built it and they have been coming ever since." Then it became, "We have built it. Why aren't they coming?" Then we tried new programs, activated new volunteers, added staff, put up new signs. We really believed that, if we built it, they would come. Sometimes they did. For awhile.

After awhile programs aren't new anymore. The needs they once met aren't as urgent as they once were. Volunteers burn out, or take healthy breaks. Staff come and go. People stop noticing signs after awhile. Unless they have experienced deeply personal engagement with the community that initially drew them in by creating something for them, those still new to the church will move on.

The decline in membership and income all established congregations have been contending with for more than the last six years has finally reached levels that no one can deny. In 2008 a lot of churches were still hiding from the truth. Many were saying, "Let's build again so they will come." Or come back. Some did. For awhile.

We can also no longer deny demographic reality. Canada has one of the fastest-ageing populations in the global north. The core demographic of Canadian Protestant churches is ageing even faster. It's also declining, slowly but steadily, as a percentage of the total population. This has more to do with birth rate than immigration.

Churches that want to grow still dream of attracting new members who are already enough like current members to fit in. In the 1980's, when churches set goals and adopted growth strategies this was called "the principle of homogeneity". We were told to go out and introduce ourselves to people who were longing to meet folks just like them. If these new friends had specific needs, we were told to build something to meet those needs. Like a church nursery. A parenting group. A counseling centre. And they would come! Sometimes they did. For awhile.

In 2016 I see just as many established Protestant churches as there were in 2008 and almost as many as there were in the 1980s. Those churches are now competing for a shrinking population.

English-speaking, middle income families with children have even more options than they did just a few years ago. They will choose when and where to invest their time, their money, their children, and themselves. Those who choose to invest in the church are looking for something more than a structure or program that sort of does what somebody else in the neighbourhood also does. Congregations with money to fund structures and programs at a consistent level of excellence can still grow. They will come. For awhile.

My experience and study tell me that it's relationships that draw in and hold onto the folks every congregation says it most wants to attract. And that's relationships, plural. They expect to know and trust the leaders, but they know leaders come and go. Sustained relationships with members of the congregation are the real reason people of all ages come and stay in community.

Every study I've read or supervised over the last six years tells me that lots of people who used to go to church, or never went to church, still seek meaning, purpose, and community. Some come to church looking for that. They don't always find what they seek. They look carefully. Yes, they can be quick to make judgments, based on first impressions. This is especially true of those young adults every established congregation longs to have among them.

What are they looking for? A community that has a clear purpose and honestly tries to live up to it. People who walk their talk. They may seek opportunities to join in doing something that makes a difference in the world. They may watch for signs that being part of the congregation makes a difference in its members' lives. At the very least they want to feel free to be as involved in church life as they choose to be.

If the congregation has many programs, do they really help people? If there are excellent facilities, are they used well and thoroughly, in ways that help people? Is worship engaging, approachable for everyone? This question is really important to a lot of young adults: If I come back and bring a friend who is obviously different from me, and most of the congregation, will we both be just as welcome as I was last Sunday?

I used to share a widespread belief-- perhaps a prejudice-- that only one way of worshiping, one kind of music, one brand of theology could feed growth in a church. I still hear a lot of that in churches. I've learned that churches of all liturgical, musical, and theological bents can grow. Or decline, fast. What draws people in and keeps them coming back is evidence that worshiping, singing, and believing together is meaningful. It doesn't seem to matter if a congregation is open and eclectic or closely framed by one tradition. What matters is the positive difference a congregation and its members make in the world because they pray, celebrate, and learn together.

Tony Robinson is one of my favourite speakers and writers on congregational life. In a recent article for The Christian Century magazine he uses marketing vocabulary to make a distinction between being market driven and product driven. He says the church has often been market driven, focused on getting a share of a chosen demographic (e.g. young parents, "Millenials"). Congregations can't ignore any segment of the population, or their contexts. Robinson says it's more important for congregations to be clear about what they offer the world. "What is the particular understanding of the gospel and of the church that we believe in? What are we passionate about? How do we give form to our vision of the gospel and the church in the ways that we gather, worship, pray, teach, sing, and serve? What is our 'product,' and are we delivering it with excellence and enthusiasm?"

A few years ago I would have been offended to be asked what my church's product was. Robinson chooses his words to make a point, and to ask us an important question. What is our product, and are we delivering it with excellence and enthusiasm?

That begs another question. If we know what we are offering, are we willing to tell others about it?

 

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