As CPR consultants work with congregations, seminaries, and governing bodies, we find ways to navigate the cultural changes. Each context presents different challenges, but we can also track some similarities in our religious landscape. Here are three common difficulties, and the creative ways that the Spirit moves so churches can respond.
1) Attendance patterns. Now that many people work on Sunday, or Sunday is their only day off, churches have noticed different attendance patterns. Even the most faithful members may not inhabit the pews every Sunday. Instead, they might attend 2 to 3 times a month. Pastors notice that Sunday morning may no longer be the prime time that it used to be. Blue Laws faded long ago, and younger generations often work retail or service industry jobs, so they have a difficult time getting off at that traditional hour.
How are congregations responding? In response, congregations bless other activities and frame them as worship. A Habitat for Humanity crew may have a prayer service after they work on a Sunday morning. A hiking group will intentionally understand the trail as a sanctuary. Parents teach their children how every day acts of thanksgiving and generosity can be worship.
Also, churches are beginning to understand their ministries differently. While we have traditionally acknowledged Sunday morning attendance as the only thing that “counts,” now congregations expand their vision, realizing the varieties of ministry we provide, so that every way the church interacts with their community (literally) counts. That way, the church has a better understanding of the full scope of their outreach and work.
2) Communication. There was once a time when we could open our doors and people would flock into the sanctuary. People were drawn by the tall steeple, family tradition, and social norms. We didn’t have to worry much about getting the word out about our congregations. Now, people don’t know the difference between Pentecostal and Presbyterian, and those ecclesial conventions rarely exist.
How are congregations responding? We realize the need to be intentional about crafting the story of who we are and spreading that narrative to those who might be searching.
Healthy churches spend time, energy, and resources making sure that they communicate with their neighbors. They have a plan to spread the story of their congregation online (through websites, social media, and email), in person (at festivals, neighborhood celebrations, and parades), and through traditional media (through Press Releases and print advertising).
3) Stewardship. Many congregations have been blessed by an incredibly generous generation, and in some cases, those supportive saints are passing away. Pastors and leaders can be shocked to find out that a couple of funerals can wipe out half of the incoming budget. Younger generations, who might be burdened by student loans and housing costs that take up most of their income, may not be able to support the church in the same way.
How are congregations responding? Congregations build up their stewardship and work on legacy programs, encouraging members to remember the congregation in their wills. Members are beginning to understand the shifts in currency. As people no longer carry checks or cash, they are finding new ways to engage on-line and text giving.
Churches are also seeing their buildings as an important resource of outreach and ministry. No longer do classrooms stay empty six days a week, but ministry partners use the spaces for organizing, support groups, and small businesses. Commercial kitchens become a caterer’s work space or the fellowship hall transforms into a yoga studio. Through all of these partnerships, the church learns to forge important relationships and discover vital revenue streams.
While these shifts in our culture can cause tension, they can also become opportunities for our churches to worship in light of our whole lives, engage more in communicating the good news, and understand how everything we own and everything we are belongs to God.
Rev. Carol Howard Merritt (@CarolHoward) is the award-winning author of Healing Spiritual Wounds (HarperOne, forthcoming), Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban), and Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban). She is a regular columnist at the Christian Century where her blog is hosted. She’s a Presbyterian (USA) minister whose writing, speaking, and teaching is anchored in theological and sociological insight. Visit: carolhowardmerritt.org.