Consider fresh perspectives on the challenge of re-tooling our inherited ministries. And the emphasis is indeed on ministries, not just academic theology alone. Theologians like to make distinctions, but if a distinction doesn’t make a difference in ministry, why pursue it?
Social anthropologists define a culture as a set of beliefs, values and behaviors passed on to a new generation. The reality now is that new generations in our times are not concerned so much about beliefs as they are about behaviors and the values churches reflect. How well will the values and behaviors demonstrated by traditional church attract young adults today?
Organizational Psychology focuses on motivation—what moves people into action. This approach starts with the simple assumption that people act to fill needs important to them at a given time. Immigrant churches could count on loyalty from participants who have a high need for security in a new land. In the migration to the suburbs, many were attracted to churches out of a felt need for social affiliation. Younger generations have newer ways to satisfy their social needs.
Organizational Behavior recognizes that informal fellowships of believers don’t last long without adding some sort of formal structure to handle problems that arise and cause conflict. The issue is whether the people serve the organization, or does the formal structure serve the people. Poorly organized congregations can turn into crusty institutions that too often strangle the life out of the underlying fellowship of Christ followers. When believers say they want no part of organized religion, they are saying they had bad experiences with overbearing leaders working through inadequate structures.
Marketing is another fresh perspective that I bring, having taught it and strategic management for years as Professor of Administrative Sciences. Corporate strategies depend on defining and expanding the market of those who will consume their product. Businesses die when they lose their market. So do churches.
Traditional churches of the Reformation inherited a church culture where their people were captive in their village setting. The job of pastors was to educate them in what to believe and do. In the process preachers too often relied on applying heavy doses of guilt, shaming them into the behavior expected of them.
The fresh community churches do not carry that cultural leftover with them. They typically plant new churches that assume little loyalty. Their challenge is to recognize needs of those they are reaching out to and then to offer ministries that fill those needs. This is straight marketing language. But in corporations the marketers need to be balanced by engineers who assure the product will work. So, too, glib marketers of spiritual themes need biblical engineering to clarify that the Spirit they proclaim is the one sent by the righteous God who offers redemption in Jesus Christ. Where even just a portion God’s Word is proclaimed, we can hope that the Spirit creates in those participants a hunger for greater substance and for a church fellowship where that is offered.
The “market” for finding more meaning and purpose in life remains strong in our society and is indeed growing, especially among the Post-Modern generations. The ministry challenge is to fine-tune mainline church ministries to feature Christ in language and behaviors young adults can more readily identify with. Look for cultural leftovers that can be left behind.
Demographics and New Hope in the Spirit
Is there hope for dying congregations that are on the defensive today? Yes and No. Many declining churches find themselves in the midst of declining demographics. People aren’t just gone from the congregation; they are gone from the community, especially in rural areas and small towns. It is natural to feel discouraged. Many are finding ways to remain faithful by working with other small churches creatively. But eventually, the end will come. I have long advocated a hospice program for dying churches. Celebrate the many ministries done over the decades and even centuries. Job well done. Give release to the remaining few to pursue their relationship with God in other ways.
Yes, there is hope for those that still have church life. Pay more attention to the Spirit’s energizing work in your midst. Pray for his presence. The Spirit works basically through Christ-centered relationships. Emphasize grace-focused, Spirit-shaped fellowship among those already gathered. Have a heart for reaching out to others in creative ways. Pray for momentum in your ministries. Then work hard to keep up with where the Spirit is moving. That’s the leadership challenge.
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that the Spirit influences human spirit. He compared this Spirit to the wind, which blows wherever it pleases. To his disciples, Jesus named the dilemma his followers face. “The world cannot accept the Spirit because it neither sees him nor knows him.” Paul explained that the eyes of the heart have to be enlightened to see the Spirit’s work. What a quandary! The argument is circular that it takes the Spirit to recognize the Spirit. But that’s the spiritual reality we face.
The Limits of Organizational Plans
Many in traditional churches don’t know the Spirit well. We can carefully lay out our ministry ambitions and determine what we want God’s Spirit to do. In our plans we like to give him assignments. Too often we are disappointed.
Years ago I co-authored the book Pastoral Administration: Integrating Ministry and Management. It sold well, especially among mainline churches. But it did little to turn around their decline. That book was at a time before I homed in on the Spirit’s role in church life. Helpful was working through Gordon Fee’s detailed analysis of the 169 references to the Spirit in Paul’s letters. Its title is God’s Empowering Presence. That was the dimension missing from a conventional church management approach.
We can lay out our hopes and plans, but we cannot count on the Spirit to fit himself into of our intentions. What worked in past ministry will not necessarily work now. The Spirit may have moved on to work through other ministries better attuned to changing times. Better management alone will not halt the decline of traditional churches. Nor will pep talks. The answer is to become better hosts for the Spirit’s work.
Where are the detailed construction documents for effective ministry? They remain sketchy so long as the unpredictable Spirit is involved. Think of building a porch as entryway into a house. We can draw out in detail what that porch should look like, complete with solid railings and sturdy steps. But constructing entranceways is not the ultimate objective for ministry in God’s church. Our goal is to usher people into the house of experiencing a living relationship with God. It is Christ’s Spirit who breathes life and brings growth into our encounters with God. The challenge is to build more functional and more welcoming porches that more effectively usher people into God’s living presence.
It’s the Spirit who enlivens Gospel-oriented relationships. Our construction plans need to anticipate and leave room for his movement in new ways here and now.