Churches, Too, Now Have to Live in Hard America

“Hard America” is a phrase used by writer and columnist Michael Barone in his book Hard American, Soft America:  Competition vs Coddling.  He describes changes that have happened in our American society in recent decades.  Almost all institutions have run into heavy competition that forced them to change how they operate if they want to survive into future decades.

Businesses have certainly a harder time as their competitors increase production and lower prices by adapting the newest technologies.  The American auto industry competes against automakers in other countries who make cars many drivers regard as superior to American-made.  When greater availability of clean natural gas made environmentally dirty coal uncompetitive, many miners became unemployed.  And of course Amazon’s competition led many brick-and-mortar retail businesses to go out of business.

Schools face much more pressure than they did decades ago.  Dissatisfaction with the poor performance of their graduates brought pressure to determine outcomes and then test to see how well these were accomplished.  Teachers faced more stress.  Teachers whose students didn’t learn much are being forced out of the profession.

Now let’s shift to churches.  For centuries churches did their ministries in a soft environment.  State churches had, with few exceptions, no competition at all.  They were in villages, which tend to have a slower pace.  State churches, like Anglican (Episcopalian), Lutheran, Presbyterian and Reformed, had no incentive to be attractive to churchgoers.  Pastors could live a slow pace.  They got into trouble only when conflict in the congregation got too visible or when they departed from the order of service dictated to them by the state-church rector.

Protestant pastors faced a harder environment in America when they needed to earn their salary from members, since in this country state subsidies no longer existed.  Clearly the pastor’s ministries and focus became more “customer” oriented and they were under pressure to add new members.  Yet for generations those church bodies in America coasted on the loyalties of families with a shared ethnic background.

In this third decade of the 21st century, old-line established congregations will have to compete in Hard America.  The competition is no longer with other long-established church bodies.  It is now with community churches that present themselves as non-denominational.  Many are large and still growing.  They are attractive especially to young people who have left behind their parents’ denominational loyalties.  Face it.  The Soft America of those loyalties isn’t coming back.

The Corona Virus pandemic forced a sorting out among congregations.  When they could not meet physically, most tried to meet virtually.  Large churches with staff and current technology were able to offer a well-produced experience.  In some, attendance and offerings went up.  Who would have guessed?  Meanwhile, congregations with older members and little digital technology offered poor-quality virtual experiences.  Most will probably not last very long.  Some of their members found their way toward congregations offering better virtual experiences.  Churches are now in an even harder America.

The pastor is the key to developing a congregational culture that will be more competitive in Hard America.  Most mainline pastors grew up and functioned in Soft America.  Most probably don’t have the heart to change their ways.  Let’s hope most will make it to retirement before their church salary disappears.

Pastors who are able to compete in Hard America will have to look at their ministry as more than an occupation.  In fact, many will need other employment to supplement what they get from their congregation.  They will have to be passionate about their ministry, especially with the emphasis on attracting those who are no longer churched.  If they are serving an existing congregation, they will have to be successful at fine-tuning that congregation’s culture.

In the future pastors will have to do their ministry focused on the Holy Spirit and dependent on the Spirit’s blessings.  They will have to get good at “waiting on the Spirit.”

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