Two Dilemmas Facing Churches Today
A friend took me out to lunch recently. He’s a retired pastor, former seminary professor, former interim minister, and currently a part-time hospice chaplain. Ministry offers varied vocational outlets, so that profile is not that unusual.
As two vocational mutts (I’ve been a school administrator, hospice chaplain, parish minister, consultant, seminary professor and dean, and educator) we had lots to talk about over a winding and eclectic lunch conversation (which included those “you can’t make this stuff up” stories about ministry misadventures).
At one point I asked him for his perspective on the current state of churches given his long vocational arc and decades of experience. He listed the usual challenges:
- Declining church attendance
- A loss of cultural influence and perceived irrelevance for the church in culture
- Aging church membership profiles
- Financial burdens from shrinking traditional revenues (voluntary giving) and aging high-maintenance large church buildings
- Competing choices for families and member on Sunday and for just about every church program offering
- The impact of the Nones and Dones.
He shared the anxiety he saw in two recent interim pastorate experiences in congregations. Both were aging congregations whose anxieties focused on reaching younger people and families with young children for church membership.
Working closely with clergy in our Pastoral Excellence Program I’m familiar with that anxiety and its misplaced focus. I shared with my friend two dilemmas I see for congregations:
First, the continued pursuit of a mythic population they want to reach: families with young children. A sobering corrective to the fantasy that churches are going to be successful at increasing membership that way is the reality that approximately 50% of the U.S. population is single or living alone. That families-with-young-children demographic churches think they can reach? It probably doesn’t exist in their context.
Second is the dilemma that in their survival anxiety churches somehow believe that young adult generations and families-with-young-children have an interest in becoming members of churches they do not perceive as relevant to their lives. Churches want those populations to join to maintain a way of doing church that was suitable and relevant to a former generation, not the current or emerging ones.
What congregations need to hear is, “People are not going to join your congregation merely to save your church.”
Long conversational lunches often involve solving the world’s problems. Unfortunately, my friend and I did not come up with a solution for these two dilemmas. How congregations overcome those two dilemmas is still anyone’s guess. It may be that most will not within the coming decade. For certain, those that do will find multiple ways and models to regain the church’s relevance, mission, and meaning in society and people’s lives. That unfolding will be worth watching.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.
His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).