Missing Generations (Part 2)

In part one I thought about some of the sociological stuff around about generational characteristics and how they affect church.

Part of the issue these generational characteristics presents is different answers to the question ‘Who are we?’.  Even if each generation shares the same answer to that question the way they might express that is different.  That’s a tension, especially if those versions of how we do church don’t fit well together.

Identity is important.

How we express who we are sets the conditions for our community.

How we express the various parts of our story defines who we are.  That story points in all directions.

It points backwards to where we have come from, to the story so far.  It points forward to where we are heading, the journey will go on.  It points inward to us, and what we value about each individual.  It points together to who we will journey with.  It points outward to who we are for, who we serve.  It points upward, to God.

Every church has its story.  Even if that story has never been written down or spoken out loud.  We tell our story in our buildings, our welcome, our music, our worship, our conversation, our focus, our activities and every other single little thing we do as church.

People see and hear our stories and they decide whether or not to be involved with that story.

They make a choice and for the most part it’s hard to blame people for the choice they make.

Many churches choose to tell a story of decline, of slow decay.  I’ve heard ministers say that their job is like palliative care to help a church die in as pain-free way as possible.

Some churches try not to engage with anyone so their story won’t be heard.  That way they might not have to change.

What about the churches who do want to engage?  Part of their story is the manner in which people will find out about them.

Attractional Church

For years we have tried to attract people to church by doing special things. That’s called ‘attractional’.  If it’s big and shiny people will come.  To some extent that’s true.  But attractional models can’t offer the same level of big and shiny you can get elsewhere and, more importantly, they can’t offer depth.

I think people are looking for depth.  They expect church to be a place where they can find people who will talk to them and share their hopes and fears, doubts and concerns and talk about God in a way which values their questions and opinions.

Attractional Church results in things like ‘Back to Church Sunday’.

I have no real problem with Back to Church Sunday if the aim is to get people who have just got out of the habit of coming to get back into the habit again.  But I suspect that’s not what most churches are thinking.

One of my tests for anything I do is ‘Would I bring my friends to this?’.  The answer is often ‘No’.  And before you jump to criticise… would you take your friends to church?  Would you ask your colleagues?  The guys you play football with?  The people at the gym or running group?

People leave for a reason.  If the only thing that was keeping people in Church was habit then Back to Church Sunday is pointless unless things have changed…

Relational Church

The one thing Back to Church Sunday has going for it is that it is born in relationships.  It’s about asking people you know to join you.

Relationships matter in church.  I asked someone who responded to Part 1 on Facebook why they left church.  Her answer was that when she had problems the people in the church didn’t know what to do, so they left her alone.  That’s not uncommon.

Being in a relationship is hard work, especially when things are tough.  Churches need to be places that decide to be there for the long haul, to commit to each other.

In many ways church has become a place that provides services (pun intended), most of which are delivered by the minister.  That can de-skill members and lead to an expectation and reliance on the minister doing it.

I’ll come back to ministers later…

Incarnational Church

Years ago Pete Ward wrote a book about youth work.  In it he talks about being ‘incarnational’.  That means being Christ’s representative in a community, being Christ-like.  I think I understand what he means but I’ve never been completely convinced that we can pull it off.

I think we try to love our neighbour.  I think we can help people who need our help but I also think that being God is God’s job.  We need to be something else.

A Mixed Economy?

Perhaps all churches will tend to be a mixture of all three approaches.  One of the characteristics of the generation gap in church is a frustration with a seemingly unchanging church.  Being aware of how people see us, how they encounter us and what they think of us might help the church to at least begin to see ourselves as others see us.

But we do see ourselves as others see us.

I could count the people I’ve met who think the church is as good as it can be on one finger.  People look around and they see a gap of generations.

Churches are innovating, people are creating new kinds of church community.  My concern is that these communities are ones created by the church as things that people might join in.  That’s not who sustainable communities are created.  Sustainable community is a slow, often painful process where people come together and explore who they are as a group.  That leads to an expression of church and that expression of church might look very different from the traditional model.  It won’t be the same with newer hymns and a bigger sound system.

It’s that kind of deep community we need to help to create.

That poses questions about the role of ministers, their training and how those new communities might be sustained and supported…


2 thoughts on “Missing Generations (Part 2)”

  1. This quote “Many churches choose to tell a story of decline, of slow decay. I’ve heard ministers say that their job is like palliative care to help a church die in as pain-free way as possible.” reminds me of my last week at university (1993) when people were working out if the Church would see them through to retirement. The consensus was “just about” and as we are all in our 40’s now I think that projection is working out correctly.

    Many people do see the church as a “living”. I don’t. I quit the road to ministry for a number of reasons, the main one being that real life got in the way. After years away from it in industry and the voluntary sector I have found myself working full time for the church in an ecumenical organisation. There are many people working in administration in the various denominations for whom that quote about palliative care holds true. They see their job as winding things down gracefully. No bumpy landings. I suspect they don’t even realise it.

    I don’t attend church. There are four reasons for this:

    Firstly, I have a history of mental health issues which are made worse by church attendance (I spoke about this recently on Radio 4’s Beyond belief with Ernie Rae).

    Secondly, I am divorced and only get to see my kids on a Sunday at a time that makes any attempt at church attendance difficult. When I lived in Morningside I was very keen to give it a go, but frustrated by my lack of ability to get there at the times there were services. I know I am not alone in this.

    Thirdly,having moved to another area of town the local parish church has a slightly unwelcoming sign outside which says they “welcome people who are hungry for God”. That’s not me then!

    Fourthly, as someone who works in the church I see enough of what goes on to put me off expending any energy on it except when I am being paid to.

    How is the church going to persuade people like me to spend part of a Sunday in the church? The usual answer is that its about community. This reminds me of the evangelical adage that everyone has a God shaped hole in them. To which I reply: no, people have a community shaped hole that the church tries to squeeze itself into. The problem with this is that the church is not a good place to build a community. We sit in rows and face the front for an hour. We do not communicate with each other. Friendships made in churches also tend to be conditional, especially in evangelical churches where falling outs have huge repercussions for families and social circles. I can remember when I discretely left an evangelical church I had neighbours crossing the road to avoid me and former friends feeling we had nothing in common.

    In other words, the church is a common interest club rather than a community. Only when those common interests are held by enthusiasts will it flourish. I can see this in some of the evangelical churches populated by people in their 20’s and 30’s, but less so in liberal churches where there is less to make people feel enthusiastic – which gets us back to the palliative care quote….

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