August 1, 2019

An answer to 'We just want to bring in young families and grow the church'

[Please note: I originally wrote the following to appear in the Summer 2019 edition of The Harvest, a publication of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas. After receiving a number of positive comments on it, I'm running it here as well, with light editing.  -tl]

Everywhere I go, I hear the same thing: “We just want to bring in young families and grow the church.” Since I’ve been on the diocesan side of things (here and in Iowa) for the last six years, you can bet I’ve heard that expression a lot – a thousand times, maybe. I’ve had years to ponder it.
The sincerity of “bringing in young families and growing the church” cannot be questioned. It comes from a real place of concern. I don’t doubt that people really believe it. But since we’re here already,  I hope you’ll let me ask a few leading questions.
1.  Who is it for – Jesus or me?

Is it based on the idea that “We’d better find someone to replace ourselves”? That “If we don’t do this the church won’t carry on any further”? Because if it comes from that place, any plan for simple self-replacement isn’t furthering the mission of God’s church. Replication should not be confused with transformation; real evangelism comes from a much deeper joy, and churches grow in response to the truth of the Gospel across their various generations. By contrast, fear and survivalism are nothing to hang a plan for growth on.

2.  Are you willing to change? You say you are, yes, of course, but are you, really?

For most congregations, truly growing the church will require some fundamental shifting in structure, practice, thought, and culture. Congregations may find that they are precisely built to resist any kind of change. So this process extracts something of a price, which means learning to do things in a decidedly different way, yet without sacrificing who we are at our core, as Episcopalians, in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean changing everything wholesale, throwing out the Prayer Book, or being dishonest about our worship style; in fact, it means something arguably deeper, which is a sincere and continuous look at ourselves in the mirror, and the willingness to make any change deemed truly necessary.

3.  How long is your commitment for?

There is a sector of the church-industrial complex dedicated to finding fast solutions, including pied-piper clergy who bill themselves as the quick-fix solution to rapidly-scaled youth programming. Do not be seduced! Take your time, build real coalitions, measure the cost, pray over ideas, study your community, read books on the subject, talk to the diocesan youth team, collaborate with partners, get sticky commitments, listen to all voices, and be sincerely invested for the long haul. As Jesus the permaculture expert warns us, rocky soil does not yield good fruit, but nutritient-rich soil built over time eventually makes for a bumper crop.

4.  How deep is your leadership bench?

People say that we should “bring in young families and grow the church,” at least in part, because it’s what they’ve been taught to say. The phrase is Episcopal lip-service. However, there’s a world of difference between verbally assenting to this idea and actually taking it on. Good leaders (lay and clergy, official and unofficial, matriarchs and patriarchs, those on Vestry and those in various committee assignments) will help the entire congregation own the idea by keeping everyone oriented to purpose and being willing to work across various factions.

5. What will you do when you encounter push-back?
While it is easy to argue for positive change in the abstract, once a new initiative has started, the opposition to it can get pretty vocal, and those who were supposed to stand up and remind people about original purpose can grow suspiciously quiet. Very few people really love or thrive on conflict, and the obstacles to church/youth growth these days are significant. More than one initative for church growth has been stopped at the first sign of trouble, and all that remains is a cautionary tale (“We tried that once and it didn’t work”).
At the heart of “bringing in young families and growing the church” is a commitment to share the amazing richness of being a part of God’s family with others. We can’t be intimidated by it; in fact, it should energize us. It has virtually nothing to do with securing the comfort-level of our institutions and almost everything to do with our willingness to be the church of Jesus across many generations.

Now, that’s a vision I can get behind.

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