Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Slippery Slope of Generational Churches

There seem to be an increasing number of “dechurched” bands of people getting together to figure out how faith looks once a person feels disenfranchised from church. I’ve read research about this and heard from more than one significant Christian leader about this trend.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone has left church, or that those who have end up in isolated home groups looking for a fresh identity. But there’s enough of it to catch my attention, and certainly the attention of those who watch for these kinds of things.

I was with one such group recently. They were devout in their love of God and faith in Jesus. They expressed love for one another, worshipped and prayed fervently. And all, even after many decades of faithful church connection, found themselves outside of an established church setting.

This got me to thinking about church life in general. There’s been a trend since the 1970’s to reconfigure church and its various practices in order to reach a new generation (at that time, my generation—the Baby Boomers). Of course, the Roman Catholic Church got busy with this a decade earlier, but the Evangelicals eventually honed the practice into a veritable industry.

What has happened since that time is a growing separation of generational cohorts within the church. So, once the Boomers’ offspring came of age, that old Rock ‘n Roll worship vibe was seen by them as outdated and tired. They just couldn’t relate, so new generationally-crafted churches emerged. Or, if that didn’t happen, young people just left church altogether as soon as they got out of high school.

I’m seeing a systemic problem with all of this. I’m not against worship gatherings that are sensitive to their cultural contexts, but when the worshipping life of the church is grounded in the preferences of a particular generation within a culture, then it must reinvent itself for each subsequent generation or die. This is not just a problem for so-called mainline churches, but also for the churches that have emerged over the last thirty or forty years. With each generational change comes the risk of alienating the prior generation and lurching inevitable toward irrelevance when a subsequent generation hits puberty.

It occurs to me that the sacramental and strongly liturgical churches have something to teach us here. In more traditional liturgies, everyone potentially dives deeply into Scripture and communal prayers. Yes, there is a sermon, but it’s usually brief and completely overshadowed by the heart of the worship time: The Eucharist.
All who are present participate—young and old, clergy and non-clergy. Prayers are spoken, songs are sung, confession echoes, bread and wine are shared. There is an ancient and eternal sense about what is happening, something not limited to a particular generational preference.

We all might be helped to rethink the meaning of the word service when it comes to church. Is it service to me and my kind, giving us what we like and serving our preferential needs? Or is it service to God as we rehearse the story of the ages and submit ourselves to his love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness? As the apostle Paul stated so well:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom 12:1)

I believe this is worth thinking about.


Sonja said...

I guess we find a church where we're comfortable and stay there (until we outgrow it or it outgrows us).
I wonder if we just have too many church choices. When something bothers us at one church, the church down the block may well do it better, so we can go there for a while.
Is that bad for the individual, or is it bad for the churches, or is it bad for everyone? Or is it not so bad at all. (Maybe I'm missing your point here. This child keeps trying to play with me...)

Dave Jacobs said...

In many monastic orders one would take a vow of stability. This was a commitment to stay at the same monastery for life. This vow came about because it wasn't unusual for some monks to think things would be better at another monastery or under a different Abbott. Sound familiar? There are some things you learn only by staying put. Thanks Mike.

Annie Poehner said...

I very much agree with you Mike. This is why I Leo and I have been going to the episcopal church. The liturgy really is a refocusing of attention from ourselves to God. I really feel the same. Since we to Sherman Oaks we have been going to St Thomas Episcopal church in Hollywood. I am really loving the high church experience. It is a place to quiet and refocus the soul....