The Church and The Community: Why and How We Reconnect
OR: What's next for Legacy Churches?
I believe that congregations can be a force for good in the world - can be instruments of peace and channels of God's grace to heal and transform lives, homes and communities. If this is to happen, we need to overcome several obstacles:
1) We are no longer connected to our communities, much less at their center. While I don't believe we need to reclaim the social or moral center, I do believe we need to engage deeply and be a place of gathering, seeking and finding. How do we do that?
Several generations ago Christian churches (and congregations of other faith groups) were at the center of American life in most communities. This has been changing for decades. Unfortunately, a large subset of these congregations were asleep as it was happening, and when we were told, we chose to either ignore the new reality or only pay lip service to the changes happening around and within our campuses.
2) Our "business model" was built on several social realities that no longer hold.
a) Congregations were staffed by scores of volunteers from 2 parent homes where only one adult worked, so there were many (typically wives) available to do much of the work around the church and out in the community.
b) People's relationship to their time was different. There were fewer alternatives for what to do on Sunday mornings.
c) People's relationship to their finances was different. There were fewer claims on people's money, and the "living wage" went further. And fewer people were working in the gig economy where they had shifts on Sundays. It now takes 7-10 Millennial and Gen Z givers to replace one Silent Generation or Boomer.
d) People's relationship to "Truth" has changed. In the post-modern world, assumptions of absolute truth are not a given.
e) People's relationship to institutions has changed. Younger generations do not give to support institutions out of loyalty, and they don't become life-long members of anything. They will subscribe, but anything they join is understood to be temporary and non-binding, like a gym membership.
f) The cost of doing business has gone up for churches, as it has for households, so there are greater needs in the church budget at the same time members have less to give.
g) In many cases, what I call legacy congregations have buildings that are far too large for their needs. One option is to "right size" the facility to match the congregation. Another is to reimagine how the facility becomes a blessing to new groups of people in the community who are also seeking life, wholeness, peace and hope.
All of this combines to bring us to our current condition, and to a set of strategies for the way forward.
1) Congregations need to recognize that, though we are no longer the center of our communities, we can still have a meaningful role to play, if we will actively engage people where they are. This means spending more time out of the building and off of the campus, understanding people's needs, and their dreams. ABCD - Asset Based Community Development is the current favored approach, which starts with the assumption that individuals and neighborhoods have strengths, capacities, and dreams. They don't need people to fix or rescue them. They do benefit from (and welcome) humble engagement that says, "I'm here to stand with you."
One of my mentors, Ken Janke, believes that "the dreams in people's hearts are the seeds of the kingdom of God," so he leads with this invitation: "Tell me the dreams you have for yourself, your family, your community." Once people get over the shock, and begin to share, his response is always the same, "I'd like to walk with you toward that."
As we do this work, we will encounter people who are already doing or dreaming amazing things that could find a new home on our campus or in our buildings. These may be things we've never considered doing before.
Congregations need to recognize that the church of the 19th and 20th century which most of us knew was the anomaly. What we are experiencing now is far more like what has been through most of Christian history, and certainly what was true in the first few centuries. We have a wonderful opportunity, if we can work through our grief and fear, to go forward into an ancient way of just being present in people's lives.
2) Congregations need to recognize that many people are alienated from the church because we have not treated others well. We have silenced voices. We have told people they were not loveable by God. We have neglected to show love and have actively abused the vulnerable. We have stood on the wrong side of a range of justice issues. And so a wide swath of the population in the US and Europe has simply said, "Who needs it?" They've not always turned their back on Jesus, or on God, if they'd ever understood themselves to have those connections. They are finding other ways to respond to their spiritual longings. If we want to walk with them on a faith journey, then we need to respect where they are today - not just tolerate but truly respect, understand and even appreciate it.
3) Congregations need to rethink how they relate to money and how they think about donors. We used to believe that the only people who would / could / should give to our ministry were those sitting in the Worship Services and Bible Studies. That may have been true, but no longer.
a) The expenses have outstripped people's ability to give to support the work.
b) Younger givers will not generally give just to support the organization - they give to people and projects that impact the world in ways that move and motivate them.
c) If the work is truly life-giving to people in the community, then others will also want to support it
d) Fewer people are choosing to participate traditionally in organized faith communities - AND, those who aren't will still be looking for ways that their resources can do good.
SO - churches need to adopt non-profit fundraising models that complement their traditional stewardship efforts. We need to learn from foundations, community organizations, and education institutions how they tell their stories, connect with donors, and invite people to participate. Fundraising is not about getting the donor to help the organization - it's about the institution helping donors make a difference with their lives.
Our Journey at Central
Like many congregations, Central has seen a steady decline in membership and income over decades - related to many of the things previously stated. Fortunately we have some reserve funds which give us the opportunity to innovate and experiment with new forms of ministry. Unfortunately, there is disagreement over whether, how and when to spend that money. Some want to spend it now toward bold strategies that can create dramatic impact. Others prefer to save it for a rainy day, and trickle it out so we can delay the eventual death of the organization for as long as possible. I try to tell them, "Noah called. He's building a boat!"
Also like many legacy congregations, we have very large buildings that offer far more room than we could possibly need or use. So we are left asking ourselves, "Do we sell, take that money, and then do something else? Do we sell and give that money to others? Or do we find new, innovative and unexpected ways to use our facilities to bless people and make the world better? God has given us these buildings. What does God want us to do with them? What if we were a small organization of 50 people and we were trying to decide how to impact our community. Along comes a generous benefactor who says, "I'll give you 34,000 square feet of building on four acres and $2 Million dollars to do something amazing!" What would we say? "No thanks, that sounds too hard"?
That's the situation we find ourselves in. Wouldn't you go with all the energy you could muster, all the faith and hope within and around you, and try to do something amazing? Wouldn't you tell that story as broadly as possible so that you could get your neighbors to join you in that adventure? I would.
Rev. Dr. Ken G. Crawford, DMin, MDiv, CSD, BCC