Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Betwixt City and Suburb

Carol Howard Merritt wrote a great piece addressing shifts in religious culture.  You can read the entire article at The Alban Institute's site.  I particularly resonated with this section:

I cannot remember a time when the church was the hub of society and life. I was born in the 1970s, part of Generation X. I never lived in a church-centered world. When older members of my congregation tell me about it, I can imagine what it might have been like, just as I can envision a time when people went to church three times a week. But I have never lived in that reality. I’ve always been in a culture where church was a place my friends visited on Christmas Eve—and now even that tradition is beginning to fade. I grew up in the midst of church news filled with clergy affairs, prostitution, and pedophilia. Throughout most of my ministry, I have worked in the shadow of these dark wounds of Christianity, laboring in a world in which the church is renowned for its sex scandals and conservative politics, a world in which people proclaim, “Religion poisons everything.” 

This is the culture I know. And this, strangely, is the place I feel most comfortable. It is not that I am happy about our current circumstances but simply that I have not experienced anything else. When I introduce myself as a pastor at parties or neighborhood gatherings, I encounter little awe or respect. Instead, I am met with a ravenous curiosity, as if people did not even realize it was still possible to make that career choice.

Much of her focus is placed on the ethos of urban (shrinking, established) and suburban (growing, young) contexts.  She describes Millennial culture as wanting "meaningful worship, an empowered lay leadership, and a spirituality that leads to action...the very things that many denominational churches have been cultivating for decades."  As one who serves a church in the great in between - neither near the urban center or on the outskirts of town - I wonder what the future holds.  We don't have the allure of a revitalized downtown that's close to businesses, concert halls, sports arenas, and funky loft apartments.  On the other hand, our neighborhood is land-locked and removed from the shiny new schools, homes, and shopping campuses that still attract young families en masse.

If nothing else, Merritt's excellent article is a reminder that we are called to be better connected to the people around us and discern how God is calling us to act relationally with the people in our neighborhood.  

What creative and redeeming work is God doing through your faith community?


  1. What particularly resonated with me was the Howe and Strauss quote '...the influence of the rising generation will cause “every arena [to] become more mannerly, structured, and civic minded.”'
    We can hope.

  2. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Erik.

    I was just at a book study and there was a seminary intern there who said (and this is my paraphrase): "I'm going to get another master's degree after this one...I don't think the church has a future, and I don't think my career will exist later in my life."

    I held my tongue.

    But what I wanted to say was something snarky like "Well, if that's the future you're planning on, then I guess it's the future we're all going to have to live into, isn't it?"

    I do believe that (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) we do have the freedom to create a future.

    And I find it interesting that each generation (my own included) is able to pretty easily blame the generation before it. I think Merritt's comments about what millennial generation folks are looking for, "meaningful worship, an empowered lay leadership, and a spirituality that leads to action..." isn't a different list than the 70 year olds in my congregation would seek.

    The neighborhood question is an interesting one to me. What it reminds me is that ALL ministry is contextual. Urban...suburban...ex-urban...rural...each has a different context. And beyond that, each congregation has its own culture and context.

    Why is it that in my town, one congregation is thriving and growing, and another of the same denomination is shrinking and struggling. There are two completely different cultures and contexts.

    It makes me wonder: Is the problem actually generational? Is the problem actually contextual?

    Or could the problem be one of leadership?

    No real answers here...just further muddying the waters!

    Thanks for raising the question.

  3. Perhaps the church is beginning to face the reality that the numbers of members were, at least in part, an inheritance of the forced conversions, the ethnic enclaves, and the identification of the church with its culture.
    In desperation churches have often deepened their identification with the current cultural stream in the name of responding to the "needs" (read "wants"?) of society.
    If we can only hear the yearning for authenticity that is resounding in many observations of the current generation perhaps we will recognize God's calling us to be a community which is nourished by and shares the Good News of Jesus Christ through deepening the call of the whole people of God in their daily lives. Seeking to be faithful servants is hard work, compelling God's people to hunger for solid meat in Word and Sacrament.


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