The Rev. Carol Howard Merritt: The Church for the 21st Century

So, I'm heading up a national Presbyterian committee which is studying the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century. We're asking people five questions. I'll answer them here (although it's going to take several posts...), and if you'd like to answer them, please let me know and I'll link your blog! We'd also appreciate feedback emailed to us at 21cchurch (at) gmail (dot) com.

If you're not Presbyterian, please forgive the insider talk. I'll try to translate as much as possible, but since many Mainline denominations are in the same situation, some of the information applies across the board.

What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?

It's clear that God is doing a new thing in our midst, and in this important time of discernment, we can become open to what and who God is calling us to become. In the PC(USA), the average age of our membership is over 60 and the median Sunday morning attendance is about 70. Clearly, a lot of things will be changing in the next 20 years. My hope is that many churches will continue to exist in health. Just because a church is small, does not mean that it's dying or that it's ill. Often it simply means that it's small.

The problem comes if that church is not able to reach out to a new generation or to its neighbors. If that happens, then churches will come to the end of their life spans. Their assets will become available and we will use them to plant new congregations that are able to tell the good news in our particular time and place. From time to time, I hear, "We're closing churches! Why would we start new ones? We can't keep the ones we have going!"

It is true that we are closing churches, but that is the reason to start new congregations. Most of our churches have been geared toward the cultural context of the post-World War II generation. The Builders who put a great deal of energy and hard work into establishing so many of our civic institutions have been the heartbeat of our congregations. As a result, we have many customs that have conformed to this great generation that may not translate well in a new generation. What are they? Well, there's more than four, but I'll just list the top ones that come to mind and I'll concentrate on the first one in this post.

1) Work

2) Finances

3) Family Structures

4) Racial ethnic makeup

As we live faithfully in a new century, we can take the work of a new generation into consideration. One radical shift that has occurred in the last 60 years is that  more women have entered the workforce. At first, a wife working was considered an extravagant "additional income," but with the cost of housing and education going up, middle class families quickly found that two incomes became a necessity.

Another thing that changed in those 60 years was the kind of work that we do. Our occupations moved from agriculture and industry to retail, service, and tech jobs. Now the majority of young adults work retail positions and they're technologically wired.

How does this affect how we do church? Well, our congregations have been thriving with a huge volunteer force, made up largely of women. We can all think of women who have made our church communities their part-time job. We have had strong women's circles, women coordinating the potlucks, and women keeping our Christian Education going. What will we do now that this massive volunteer force will no longer be available? Will we be able to maintain the way that we do church?

Many people have pleaded for a shift from  volunteerism to discipleship.  This is an important distinction, and I think it has as much to do with the church as it does with the disciple. Instead of asking people to show up for a committee meeting so that we can shoot down any new ideas and affirm that we should do everything exactly the same way that we did it last week, we can realize the importance of their time. Value it. Make sure that each hour we ask of people is spent in meaningful ways. The disciples were asked to give up their lives in order follow the way of Jesus, and to change the world. Do we expect that people will change the world? Or are we looking for them to rubber stamp our customs?

Not only is time valuable, but our availability might be different as well. It no longer takes 40 hours to keep a household afloat. It now takes 80, or even 100. And a new generation works retail, service and tech jobs, which means we don't usually fit into the traditional 9-5, Monday through Friday workweek. If we're working retail, it's almost  impossible to get Sundays off  (unless you're in management). In other jobs, we have negotiated flexible schedules in order to balance work and family, but that often means that we are on duty on Sunday. Even if a person is highly committed to church, he or she just may not have the ability to attend at 11:00 am on Sunday morning (a time that was convenient for farmers), and so worship, the heart of what we do, becomes difficult for many.

So as we envision a church for the 21st century, we can ask ourselves the following questions:

What sort of work do young adults do in our community?

Do we ask people to give up their time for meaningful work? Do we ask them to engage in committee work where they have no creative freedom to change things? Do we have an important mission in our communities? Are we doing enough to change the world? Are we working to feed the homeless or provide shelter for the needy?

Does the time of our service make sense in our community? Is it even possible for younger generations to attend our church?

[Taken with permission from Carol Howard Merritt's blog, Originally posted 7/7/11.]