Wake up and smell the coffee! When I hear this expression, I wonder which comes first– smelling the coffee or waking up. Come to think of it, if I’m asleep and smell coffee, I wake up. Perhaps I could program my coffee maker to awaken me with pungent Northwest Coffee Company’s best (Thank you, Pastor Holyan, for introducing me to this gem right in my neighborhood). Our congregations need to “wake up and smell the coffee!”
In my ministry I have dealt with a fair number of sleepy churches. The 1989 film “Field of Dreams” contains the famous line, “If we build it, they will come.” The main character played by Kevin Costner dreams of building a baseball diamond in the middle of Iowa farmland. For decades we Christians have held to belief, “if we construct a church building, people will come.” Christians built cathedrals in the Middle East and in Europe, and then all over the world. And people came to them, because they were invited or socially ostracized if they didn’t attend church, or because they were prompted by their faith in Jesus Christ to worship.
In the latter part of the 20th century, something happened. People began to lose interest in church and stopped attending worship. Church buildings, however, are costly to maintain. After a building is about 20 years old, the roof starts to leak, and the paint flakes and the bathrooms look dated. At one church I served, the basement flooded every time we got a heavy rain like we did last week. Apparently the assumption 50 years ago was that everyone who came to church could walk up steps, and at considerable cost many church buildings have been retrofitted to accommodate people in wheel chairs. Government regulations require buildings to comply with codes, leading to additional costs for churches.
One of the saddest conversations I recall was with a Clerk of Session of a Presbyterian church in Scotland. I worshiped at the charming centuries-old church one Sunday morning with about 20 locals. As we toured the cemetery where members had been laid to rest for the past 500 years, the clerk wondered aloud how much longer the church would continue. “We are all old and tired, ” she said. “The young people have moved away or are not interested in church.” This conversation occurred 12 years ago, at a time when we Presbyterians in the United States were starting to see the downward trajectory of church membership that European congregations had witnessed for many years. Between 2013 and 2014 the PCUSA had a net loss of over 92,000 members. Congregations departing the PCUSA over recent decisions we made together account for some of the decrease, but the major problem is our failure to attract new members. While some people blame sell-out to cultural pressures and disagreement over sexual orientation or nuances in theology for the downturn, these disagreements are not the major cause of PCUSA membership decline.
Our world has changed, and the Church has been slow to adapt. Presbyterians are not producing as many offspring as previous generations (the long-time sure-fired way to grow churches). People have many more choices now for connecting with other people, both electronically and face-to-face. Drive around town on a Sunday morning, and see where people are gathering– on soccer fields, in parks, at coffee shops. Churches have lost their privileged prime time Sunday morning slot. Most of all we are failing to attract the next generation. While there are a number of reasons why this is so, I want to offer a few observations.
Many long-time members like things the way they are, and are resistant to change. A few years ago, some church gurus made a bold assertion that the young people who are attending church like “traditional” worship. “See,” traditional church-goers opined, “They (meaning younger people) like traditional worship, so we don’t need to change what we do.” There are people younger than 60 who like “traditional worship,” and some who have a preference for a mixture of traditional and contemporary. Others prefer contemporary music only. But music and worship are not the only aspect of being church.
On Sunday I was privileged to meet with UKirk for frisbee, food, and fun, a gathering at Tower Grove Park. (UKirk is the Presbytery’s new outreach to college and university students). Campus Pastor Miriam Foltz has been meeting regularly with young adult students this summer, several of whom grew up in Giddings-Lovejoy churches. We played a game unfamiliar to me. It was a bit like charades, where there are two teams, and everyone writes words or phrases that have to be guessed by the opposing team. On one of the slips of paper I wrote, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” which proved to be one of the harder phrases to guess. Few hymns have more prominence in the common Protestant repertoire, and my take-away is that it is not a hymn that is sung often in the churches where these students grew up. This was a lesson learned, because I suspect that if I had written a more familiar praise song on the paper, these young adults would have more readily recognized it. At the risk of offending church musicians, attracting people to church is not all about the music. Attracting new people and younger people is not about putting up a screen and starting a praise band, though these adjustments, along with a fabulous organ and enthusiastic, competent choir, are helpful.
What we do know is that younger people are seeking meaningful relationships. As a young child in the 1960’s I grew up hearing the phrase, “don’t trust anyone over 30!” This comment is attributed to Jack Weinberg of the Free Speech movement in Berkeley, California. I wonder how growing up with this phrase has affected us. The “boomer generation” that “dissed” the older generation as very conservative and “uncool” is now the older generation. Since we are over 30, are we not to be trusted? Do we trust ourselves? I hope and pray that we prove to be trustworthy. However, I wonder if the generation that didn’t trust anyone over 30, just can’t imagine that those under the ages of 50, 40, 30 might actually want to relate with people over 30, as well as people under 30.
Research shows that many in the millennial generation are open to and even welcome relationships with people of all ages. This doesn’t mean that the young adult down the street is going to become your “bestie,” but it does mean that our ministries must be about forming relationships within and across generations!
While not everyone likes coffee, it has grown in popularity. I have observed that churches are pretty good at serving up coffee. After church “coffee hour” has been a mainstay. This time of informal gathering for conversation now has all kinds of names, but the reason for including this time in church life remains the same: it is a time of meeting new people and greeting friends, an opportunity for forming relationships, and relationships are what people are seeking. Relationships are crucial! Forming relationships, sustaining relationships– this is the critical work before us. Genuine, loving relationships are the context in which faith is shared and nurtured, and these relationships must be cultivated generation to generation.
IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE!