Ecclesiastical Misconceptions #1

Eastertide has begun. The Great Fifty Days, that season between Easter and Pentecost was used by the early church as a way of continuing the faith formation of new Christians. The common lectionary turns to the Book of Acts where we read the stories of those first followers of the Risen Christ. It’s a great time (see what I did there?) to talk about the theology of the church!

In that spirit, over these fifty days let’s explore great myths and misconceptions of the modern church:

#1: OUR CHURCH NEEDS YOUNG FAMILIES/YOUNG PEOPLE

Rural, urban, suburban; tiny churches to cathedral status; this is a central worrying theme. It often comes up when churches are in pastoral transition (we need a nice young pastor who can bring in the young families) and when churches want to talk about transformation. 

Diving deeper into the conversation, I’ll hear concern about the future of the church without the presence of younger folks. The old pattern of adult children returning to church after their children have been baptized is no longer true. For the first time in a century, the proportion of Americans who are church members is below 50%.

The response is the same – our church needs young families/young people!

We need them because who will do the work of the church when we’re gone?

We need them because financially this model of doing ministry is unsustainable.

We need them because it causes us grief to think that something that has had such meaning in our lives is not valued in the same way.

We. Need. Them.

There’s a shift here in the theology of the church (still rocking that Great Fifty Days theme of ecclesiology). Can you see it? 

At some point the mission of the church became more about sustaining itself than bringing the transformative love of Jesus Christ to others. Less delicately, at some point in our history we began to focus on our needs, as opposed to the needs of the world (or in this case, the needs of young families).

Now, I know that many churches do a world of good and are wonderful places for folks to grow deeper in their faith. I’m grateful for the church in all its forms and expressions and would not be who I am if it weren’t for the presence of congregations that cared deeply for me and helped shape me in the faith. They did so not because I was a commodity to be invested in but because they had something to offer me: incredible and amazing grace.

What if instead of “OUR CHURCH NEEDS….” we were to consider in what ways young families might need a congregation to sustain them? How can we show young people that incredible grace and love without any expectation of future gain on our part? The early church reached out to folks of various ages and backgrounds not because the church needed them… but because they understood that they had something of incredible value they could offer the world. 

We need to do the same.

2 Comments

Traditional Children’s Ministries and Renewal

This is a fascinating topic to broach because I myself wrestle with the conundrums of supporting traditional children’s ministries in my own church. As I reflect on my own thoughts and behavior regarding this topic, this is what I’ve concluded: our stubborn over reliance on outdated models of children’s ministry allows us to make half-gestures towards the ideals of community outreach and mission without really doing the hard work of reflecting on our cultural moment, seeing the spiritual dimensions of the problem, or responding to the true opportunities of our moment.

I should define my terms so my argument is clear. By “overreliance” I mean we in the church always seem to reach primarily for some version of children’s ministry to solve all our outreach problems rather than investing in a range of ministry initiatives. And by models of “traditional children’s ministry” I mean some version of new children’s classes or a new Christian Education staff position to attract new families in the neighborhood.

I find this over reliance so fascinating to study because I find myself personally reaching for (and over relying on) these same outdated models even when I know their severe limitations. There are many churches that need to address deeper issues than the lack of a children’s education class. Truth be told, I must confess to you I’m dealing with a bad habit I cannot break. But currently I feel no shame about my bad habit because everyone around me has the same bad habit. Over relying on children’s ministry is the spiritual equivalent of muscle memory in church life. We have done this routine so many times we do not even think about the whys and hows of what we are doing. Children’s ministry and potlucks are to the church what motherhood and apple pie are to American patriotism. Both things are important touchstones for churches as well as ill-defined symbols that can distract us from our real situation. Besides bad mental habits, the sheer energy required to move the church out of this reliance on traditional children’s ministry slows down and defeats many initiatives towards renewing the church.

Those are some of the things I thought about when I read your great post!

    Dang, Glenn! What a fantastic response. Currently feeling no shame about your bad habit because we are all sharing that habit is perhaps one of the best commentaries on the status of the church that I’ve heard. It’s a confession and excuse all wrapped up into one tidy bundle. Damn. Thank you!

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