Friday, January 27, 2023

Instead of Church as Usual

Midjourney AI

Christianity is in decline in the United States. This has been the case for some time with mainline denominations, like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, and the Presbyterian Church (USA). It is now true as well of evangelical churches, including even the Southern Baptist Convention. The evangelicals have long asserted that it's the theological liberalism of the mainline denominations that have lead to their diminishing numbers, and that could well be true. 

It seems to me, however, that a lot of the evangelical growth over the decades of the 20th century was from people who were leaving those mainline churches, and not genuine converts to Christianity. Now that evangelicalism's star is also fading, those churches are finding themselves in the same situation as their mainline counterparts. For more progressive denominations I do think that there's a way forward, but it certainly won't be business as usual. Here are my suggestions for how such churches could proceed in ministry, while casting off what doesn't advance their mission.

First, I don't think this is the end of in-person congregations. Certainly many have closed and will yet close, but more than likely some small ones will carry on, while some larger ones will be able to remain robust with less competition. Local churches provide a forum for people to connect with one another, to sing, hear some encouragement and/or reflections on what matters in life, and socialize. This will always have value. At the same time, we should have learned something from the pandemic about the value of the internet in ministry.

That brings me to my second point, being that virtual church needs to be embraced and promoted, and not as just a transfer of what already exists onto the internet. It's fine to stream services, but is that really what people want? I rarely have the patience to sit through an online service, but if it's recorded I skip ahead to the sermon. If we're going to do virtual church, it needs to be new wine in new wineskins. Denominations could build their own social networks, complete with videos, collaborative games centered around shared values, and the means to socialize online in a safe, moderated environment. Ministers could be trained in moderation and online conflict management, and work with their local manifestation of the denomination or church network. 

To get to this point, though, a mindset of online church as second-rate needs to be pitched. "Virtual first" should be the mindset, with in-person gatherings being inspired by online interactions and activities. From the church groups online, and with the sponsorship of the denomination, on the national, regional, or local level, real-life meetups could take place. There would certainly be self-organizing involved, and members could form meetups for whatever purpose, but some groups would be intentionally organized by church leadership to foster spiritual growth, activism, and so forth. 

Third, beyond meetups there should be regular retreats and camps that are organized by the denomination on some level. I've observed that in denominations like Community of Christ that there is a phenomenon of some people never showing up to church on Sunday, but always attending church retreats or camps. My own son, a Unitarian Universalist like me, stopped attending church when he graduated from high school. And yet he eagerly attends UU young adult retreats and camps, and is part of the planning committee for regional UU young adults. Since we're progressive, we don't see any reason to insist on weekly attendance, and that works great for people like my son.

The fourth item for consideration is how the 'unchurched' population no longer depends on the church to provide a minister to officiate weddings or other ceremonies. The Universal Life Church and a number of other organizations offer ordination to whoever seeks it, meaning that a friend or family member can easily apply for and receive ordination through the internet, and legally officiate weddings. I myself am a Humanist Celebrant, endorsed by The Humanist Society, and last year I officiated my daughter's wedding. We could have obtained a minister, but it was so much more meaningful that I could officiate, with the added benefit that I could do so in the native language of bride and groom, Portuguese. 

The denominations should promote the services of their ministers, at least those who wish to make themselves available, as officiants for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and so forth. Sure, there are those who argue that baptism should be a church event, but for Christians that doesn't make sense to me, given that the baptisms in the New Testament were public but not in a church context. For Unitarian Universalists, who generally practice infant dedication and coming of age ceremonies, these could easily and meaningfully take place within the context of a gathering of friends and families rather than in a church. 

Fifthly, the denominations need to reconsider what kind of ministry for which they are forming new ministers. As I said above, online skills and a proficiency for officiating ceremonies are two areas of value. On a larger scale, though, there are specific roles for which ministers are also going to be in demand or able to add value. One is chaplaincy, which is growing in the United States. Hospitals, hospice services, the military, and other institutions need qualified chaplains. The seminaries should all be investing in training for this work. Also, non-profit leadership formation is also needed. Seminaries are in a good position to offer degree programs tailored to the work of social change makers.

Finally, denominations should move away from an agency model to encouraging social enterprises. As offerings diminish it's going to become more important than ever that efforts to help people and communities be sustainable. By both promoting training for social entrepreneurs and carefully investing in efforts that show great promise, the denominations can extend their reach and make a positive impact for what overall will be hopefully less than their bureaucracy has cost them up to now. 

Denominations of the future are going to need to be lean, agile, tech savvy, and ecumenical. Anything less is a recipe for irrelevance and collapse.