What If We Stopped Worrying about Church Growth and Started Worrying about Living Like Jesus?


What If We Stopped Worrying about Church Growth and Started Worrying about Living Like Jesus?

June 10, 2013

Church decline has taken hold in earnest. It used to be that only “liberal” mainline churches experienced the soul sucking drip-drip of attrition. But now, even conservative denominations have begun to feel the bite.

As I’ve noted before the fastest rising religious self designation among those 18-29 is “none”—which is to say, no religious affiliation at all. In other words, a staggering number of young people (32%), if they ever had any religious affiliation, no longer do. An alarming number of them have moved on.

And it’s not that they don’t necessarily care anything about the spiritual plane of existence. Many of the “nones” still claim to have a belief in God, still pray, still think of themselves as spiritual. What they almost all share in common, however, is a decided sense of estrangement from organized religion.

What does this mean for the church? Young people came; they saw; they went to Starbucks.

While churches scramble to find killer programs that will appeal enough to young families down the street to switch their congregational affiliations, a generation of young people are running-not-walking away from religious affiliation of anykind.

While churches are fighting over whether to have “Praise Teams” or “Gospel Hymns” in an effort to attract Methodists and Presbyterians disaffected by the latest move in the worship wars, demographic chunks are peeling away.

While churches compete with one another over how best to entice each others’ members away, Millennials (and Gen Xers) are opting out of the competition altogether.

Here’s a novel idea: What if we let the Methodists and the Presbyterians (and the Disciples down the street) keep their folks, and start thinking about how we can restart a conversation among people currently without benefit of a faith community to sustain them?

And the thing is, it’s not just young people. (Young people just happen to have seen through the games we play more rapidly, and have had the courage to absent themselves.) There are folks up and down the age spectrum who either don’t have any interest in the church or who have been burned so badly by it in the past that they don’t want anything to do with it anymore—and who therefore don’t have the kind of community the church at its best can provide.

Last night, the church where I pastor, in conjunction with the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work and the Fairness Campaign of Louisville, hosted a screening of the film, Gen Silent, a documentary about the little known needs of the aging LGBT population.

The film addresses issues about the difficulty in finding long term care for LGBT folks, and how hard it is to find healthcare professionals trained to deal with the unique gerontological needs of a portion of the population that has generally spent its life hiding its identity from a hostile society.

How does a nursing home, for example, deal with a gay man’s partner of 40+ years when he arrives each day to tend his beloved?

How does a fifty-nine year-old Transgender woman find adequate support to stay in her home as she dies of cancer after her family has cut her off?

Difficult stuff this.

But what struck me was the absence of community these aging elders faced. Many LGBT seniors came of age prior to the cultural struggles that have allowed younger people to be more open about their orientation and identity. As a result, these seniors have often cloistered themselves with their partners in a bubble of solitude. And having long ago been estranged from their churches and families, many LGBT adults face the stark reality of a future with no support.

As I watched I thought: “That’s us! That’s what the church—when we get it right—does well. We offer community. Why couldn’t the church step in—and rather than continue to be a source of pain and humiliation for these folks, start being the healing presence of Jesus? We have loads of people who don’t think they can do anything important for Jesus, but who can drive people to appointments, and cook casseroles, and hold people’s hands. We already know how to do that. We do it for our people all the time. Why can’t we do it for people who’ve by and large given up on the church?”

And young people, in an increasingly mobile and rootless society have no less need for a community to embrace them. They live, many of them, hundreds of miles away from their families and friends. They need “parents” who know how to change out an electric receptacle or hem a pair of pants. They need to know somebody who knows how difficult teething can be or what to do when your kid’s still sick and you know you’ve already missed too much work.

You see where I’m going with this, right? We have the resources to be God’s hands and feet in our own little corner of the world.

Look, I’m not suggesting another evangelism strategy. All I’m saying is that until we figure out how to live authentically like Jesus among the very people with whom Jesus spent most of his time, no evangelism strategy is going to work anyway.

If we start worrying more about looking like Jesus and less time worrying about looking like we’re trying to win some sort of award for metastatic growth, I feel pretty good that the rest will take care of itself.

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

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