September 23, 2021

Learning From Our Future

Imagine that you had a time machine.

Imagine that you could travel back in time and talk with the leaders of your own congregation two or three generations ago. Imagine that you could give advice to your predecessors in a time when sustainability was assumed, pews were full, and every Sunday school was teeming with children. What would you say?

I spent my recent sabbatical asking this question of church leaders in highly secular contexts. My goal was to learn what congregations that are currently in positions of strength might do now to prepare ourselves for a future ministry context that will likely look very different from the one we now know.

Impressively, many of my colleagues spoke first of mission:

  • “Be able to articulate your faith.Faith in Jesus Christ is what makes the church unique. Faith is what distinguishes us from community centers and service organizations. In places where the church’s relevance is in question, a clearly-articulated faith can provide both hope and purpose. Vibrant congregations know their unique raison d’être and their people can articulate it.
  • “Be open to ministry techniques from other traditions.” The evangelical movement began embracing technology and small group ministry in the mid-1970s. Some leaders in now-secular contexts wish that the Episcopal Church had done the same. The evangelical investment in deep, faith-based, person-to-person relationships proved to be an effective means of growing their congregations and their experience with technology prepared them well for the pandemic. Vibrant congregations are willing to learn from the success of other traditions.
  • “Be less territorial.” The days of every congregation needing or affording its own youth minister, its own choirmaster, its own set of contracted vendors, and even its own priest have long since passed in many places. Vibrant congregations have found ways to advance their missions by sharing resources without competition.
  • “Be focused on a specific objective in the wider community.” As people’s desires to affiliate with institutions declines, and as their interest in concrete outcomes increases, it is helpful for congregations to rally around some specific, outward-focused, high-impact effort like caring for unhoused persons, tutoring children, or advocating for marginalized groups. Whatever their specific goal may be, vibrant congregations have a shared sense of purpose.

As someone who loves the Episcopal Church and who prizes its unique voice within the greater Christian tradition, the next bit of advice was hard to hear: “Prepare for a post-denominational era.” In a predominantly secular culture, religious people constitute a minority. Christians are a minority within that minority, and individual denominations are even more of a minority still. To remain relevant in a secular world, Christians need to move past the internal debates that divide Catholics and Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. We must work together on the issues facing our community and speak together about the love of God for all his children.

One colleague would have offered her predecessors a different sort of advice, perhaps more predictable and practical: “Build the largest endowment possible.”

I needed some help to understand how this advice would do anything more than perpetuate an outdated model of “doing church.” Another colleague offered useful perspective: “These dollars will help sustain the church in its transition from the current model to the new model that we are just beginning to develop.”

The philanthropy model of church fundraising is not the only one in our recent history. Before annual giving campaigns became common, many Episcopal congregations funded their operations through pew rent. Between those two models, we relied on patronage from some of the wealthiest and most prominent families in American history.

The pew rent model of funding church operations was grounded in a fee-for-service mindset – the largest givers got the best seats. With the philanthropy model, donors receive only “intangible religious benefits,” as so many church tax receipts say. Persuading people to give more in exchange for less could not have been easy.

Similarly, the transition to our next model of “doing church” – and of funding church – will take time. The faithful building up of reserves now (along with the reduction of outstanding liabilities like debt and deferred maintenance) can help make sure we do not run out of time.

There is no evidence to suggest that the decline in American religiosity is going to reverse itself any time soon. In fact, it seems to be accelerating. This is the church’s new cultural context in many places and it will soon be in others. I believe that a new, creative, and missional future can lie ahead of us, but only if we acknowledge our changing reality and prepare ourselves for it.

Colleagues who lead vibrant congregations in secular places are like time travelers to those of us for whom the traditional model of “doing church” is still doing fine. They have seen a reality that is still unknown to many of us, and their advice is grounded in experience. Will we heed it?