Tag: churches

Why We Still Need (Some) Monocultural Churches

Immigrant-children-ellis-island
Immigrant children at Ellis Island. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Multicultural churches are all the rage these days. Conferences are packed with pastors learning how to start multicultural churches, or how to turn the churches they pastor into one. That long-overdue trend is welcomed because God is the God of diversity. In light of God’s call to reconciliation, churches ought to reflect the diversity of their neighborhoods.

But, we still need monocultural churches, particularly among newly-arrived immigrant populations. Here are six reasons why.

1. Monocultural churches can provide a safe haven for minorities within a dominant majority culture. After the Civil War ended in 1865, emancipated African Americans left their former white masters’ churches to form black congregations. The rich history of the American black church is one not only of worship, but as the hub of the African American community. For minority populations, especially newly-arrived immigrant populations, monocultural churches can provide this same safe haven today.

2. Monocultural churches allow for minority perspectives to develop and be heard. On a national scale, American Christianity was shocked into reality with the publication of Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s book, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The subtitle should have been Freeing the Church from White Cultural Captivity, because Professor Rah writes compellingly of the “white captivity of the church.” Dr. Rah’s advocacy for other voices — voices of minorities — to be heard and respected could be realized if white churches and leaders recognize and listen to the voices from Korean, Laotian, West African, African American, and other churches whose members are in the minority in American cultural life.

3. Monocultural churches can provide a connection to home, customs, language, ritual and power structures that generations of immigrants wish to retain. The myth of the American melting pot has been debunked as Americans of all ethnicities have attempted to connect with their ancestral roots. For those in the minority, the identity fostered by language, dress, ritual, and customs is difficult to retain, but important to remember.

4. Monocultural churches can become points of transition, assisting newcomers to America as they navigate their new culture. When I traveled in China, I was always interested in talking to Americans who had lived and worked in China to find out what restaurants they frequented, where they shopped, and how they learned the Chinese language. The same need exists in new immigrants to this country. Those from their own countries can help new immigrants negotiate the meaning and pace of American life.

5. Monocultural churches help resist the marginalization of minority groups. The danger any minority faces is not only being assimilated into their new culture, but being absorbed and marginalized by it. Monocultural churches, like the black church, have given rise to a unique expression of the Christian faith, and established a unique place for its people in American church life. White churches and denominations must reject outreach to minority populations because they are the answer to white church or denominational decline.

6. Finally, monocultural churches do not confirm the notorious church growth teaching called the “homogeneous unit principle.” Church growth studies advocated that because people (usually white) found it easier to be with people like them, it followed that homogeneous churches would grow more quickly and easily. However, monocultural churches are not excluders, but incubators that allow potentially fragile populations to establish themselves, grow, develop a unique witness, and thrive in the rich diversity of American church life.

Of course, none of these reasons is intended to sanction prejudice, discrimination, or exclusion in any church. In the Book of Acts, the church in Jerusalem cared for its Jewish widows and its Greek widows as well.

However, before you jump on the bandwagon of exclusive multiculturalism, remember that historically monocultural churches like German Lutherans, English Baptists, Scottish Presbyterian, British Anglican, and others established themselves in colonial America. These monocultural churches became incubators for those who came to these shores seeking freedom, which included the freedom to add their past to a new American future.

A New Subtitle: Churches as Communities of Reconciliation

The new subtitle of this blog is Churches as Communities of Reconciliation. Let me unpack this phrase one element at a time.

Let’s start with churches. This blog began with a focus on small congregations, but over the past seven years’ of writing, I have come to the conclusion that size is the least significant factor in church vitality. Rather, a church’s sense of mission — missional consciousness, to use the jargon — is a better gauge of church vitality than size. Churches with a clear sense of purpose, whether large or small, thrive and are vibrant members of their communities. And, just to be clear, my confidence is in churches, not other organizations, to embody and exhibit the Kingdom of God as a contrast society in contemporary culture. Those churches can be traditional, seeker-sensitive, neo-monastic, denominational, or any of the other flavors that churches come in today. The form is less important than the way in which local congregations live out their calling to be salt and light to their communities and the world.

Secondly, I’m interested in churches which are practicing reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 NIV). I’m convinced that the Bible is the story of God’s reconciling love beginning in the Garden of Eden and concluding with the New Heaven and New Earth in Revelation 21-22. The reconciling love of God finds its highest expression in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul continues the theme of reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Down through the ages, Christian churches, evangelical churches in particular, have emphasized reconciliation between God and humankind. However, there exists also the unmistakable idea that we cannot be reconciled to God — we cannot say we love God — without being reconciled to one another. Theologians have called these the cruciform (meaning “cross-shaped”) aspects of reconciliation. We are “vertically” reconciled to God, while being “horizontally” reconciled to those around us, even our enemies. If God has given us the ministry of reconciliation — and I believe along with Paul that God has — then reconciliation should be the signature ministry of churches.

I wrote my DMin dissertation at Fuller on the subject of The Reconciling Community: The Missional Mending of Spiritual and Social Relationships Through Local Church Ministry. In my research and writing, I explored not only the theological and theoretical aspects of reconciliation, but the practical, applied aspects as well. Of course, I wasn’t the first to come to this awareness, and I discovered that scores of churches in the US (and, other places), are actively practicing reconciliation in their communities.

Finally, to put it all together, I am focusing on the result that churches practicing reconciliation are building peace communities. In reconciliation studies, much of the literature is theoretical. Authors focus on the theology of reconciliation, the multi-disciplinary nature of reconciliation, and stories of reconciliation in places like South Africa and Rwanda. However, I found very few resources that could describe what a ministry of reconciliation looked like on the ground in real life. To that end, I synthesized the best of the theoretical research to develop a list of criteria for what reconciliation looks like. I’ll list those in a later post, but my point is that for churches to be able to engage in a ministry of reconciliation, we have to know what one looks like, and what result we seek as agents of reconciliation.

The goal of churches which practice reconciliation is, in my opinion, to build peace communities. I don’t mean peaceful communities, although they certainly would be. Peace communities are those neighborhoods and areas included in a local church’s ministry influence, that have been transformed in measurable ways by the practice of reconciliation.

When Jesus sent out the 70 (or 72) disciples, among other things he instructed them in the practice of peace: “ “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’  If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6 NIV). We have neglected this idea of speaking peace, finding the person of peace, and “staying in one place” to bring about transformation of an entire community. That’s what peace communities are — communities that have been transformed by the shalom of God into places where Kingdom ethics are lived out, hurts are healed, relationships are restored, and God’s children live in harmony. If that sounds like an improbably fantasy we must remind ourselves that Jesus said some pretty improbable things.

In future blog posts, I’ll tell the stories of churches that are practicing reconciliation and building peace communities in their own neighborhoods. I’ll also present resources, books, seminars, and organizations that can be helpful in your church’s quest to become a reconciling community. I’m convinced this is the church of the future — engaged, vital, and transformative — and I hope you’ll continue the journey with me.

6 Dramatic Trends Churches Are Ignoring

Despite the adoption of coffee bars, powerpoint presentations, and full-stage lighting, churches are seldom on the cutting edge when it comes to addressing demographic trends.  Here are six dramatic trends that are not being addressed adequately by local churches, church networks, or denominations.

If we continue to ignore these trends for another decade, churches will continue to see an erosion of members, attendance, and relevance in a rapidly changing American culture.

Gleaned from “Six Disruptive Demographic Trends: What Census 2010 Will Reveal” published by The Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, these trends will impact churches as well as the U.S. economy.

1. The South has several new faces.

“…between 2000 and 2008, the South was the preferred destination for movers in nearly all of the major demographic groups, including blacks, Hispanics, the elderly, and the foreign born.”

While the Northeast and Midwest grew by 6.5 and 9.4 percent respectively, the South attracted over half (51.4%) of the 24.8 million increase in the United States population. The West garnered about one-third of the total U.S. growth, but was an net exporter of 2 out of the 4 groups mentioned.

Of course, the South isn’t called the Bible belt for nothing, but established churches in the South tend to be single race churches, white and black, with few examples of churches designed to address the issue of the South’s growing multiculturalism. Mark de Ymaz in Arkansas is doing it, and Soong-Chan Rah writes about it, but at the local church ministry level few are addressing this multicultural growth trend.

2.  The minority majority is coming.

In the 1980s when I first visited Fuller Seminary’s campus in Pasadena, I was told that there was no majority group in Pasadena – everyone was a minority. That trend is now a growing reality across America. The UNC report calls it the “browning of America,” which is a phrase I don’t like because it pits white against “browns,” and if not carefully stated becomes a pejorative description of those not-white.

But the fact remains that non-white population growth is outstripping white growth dramatically. Between 2000 and 2009, Asians increased by 31 percent; blacks by 10 percent; and, Hispanics by 36 percent, while non-Hispanic whites increased by only 2 percent. Immigration patterns and birth rates are the primary drivers of this coming minority majority. By 2050, the non-Hispanic white population will fall below 50 percent for the first time in our nation’s history. No group will be the majority population, and that holds both great challenge and great promise for churches in the next 40 years.

3.  Out-marriage is in.

Same gender marriage has grabbed the headlines, but cross-ethnic marriages are the quiet growing reality.

“Among newly married couples, the out-marriage rate was 14.6 percent in 2008, up from 6.7 percent in 1980,” according to the UNC report. In addition, those marrying outside their ethnic group tend to be more, not less, educated.

Churches in our community (rural, Southern Virginia) tend not to have interracial couples, although there are many in our community. As this out-marriage trend grows, churches will need to become more conscious and sensitive to these ethnically-blended families. Church literature and advertising will need to run images of cross-ethnic couples and families in order to indicate a church’s welcome to these blended marriages.

4. The baby boomers aren’t babies anymore.

“On January 1, 2011, the first baby boomer born in America turned 65 and set into motion what we refer to as the “silver tsunami.” Almost 80-million baby boomers will leave the U. S. workforce in the next 20 years.

Churches already skew older than the national population average, and this will only become more pronounced in the next two decades. Seeker-sensitive churches that sprang up to attract baby boomers in the 1980s will be impacted by the aging of this group.

While churches almost always want to attract young families, by default and intention there will be churches that focus primarily on senior adults. Senior adult ministry for and with older adults will not just be a sub-group of larger congregations. Entire churches will be senior-led, benefitting from the years of experience, education, skills, and resources this group possesses.

5. It’s no longer a man’s world.

According to the report, men “bore 80 percent of total U. S. job loss between 2007 and 2009” leading some to proclaim the “end of men” in the economic market. Out of ten college graduates over the past decade, 6 were women and 4 were men. Women own 40 percent of all U.S. businesses, and women hold 43 percent of all executive, administrative, and managerial positions in the U.S. economy.

“Women are close to surpassing men as the numerical majority in the paid U.S. workforce.” In addition, in “married couple households, women now account for 47 percent of household income”, and 63.3 percent of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinner, up from 27.7 percent in 1967.

The implication for churches is obvious in several areas. Ministries to men and women need to recognize these new workplace realities. Ozzie and Harriett are dead, and churches need to deal with gender issues like it was 2012, not 1952.

6. Grandparents are the new parents.

“In 2010, 4.9 million American children lived in grandparent-headed households.” This is an increase of 26 percent versus a 4 percent increase for children living in all other type households.

Increasingly, these grandparent-led households also include one or more adult children who are parents of the grandchildren. And, 40 percent of children were living in home headed by a grandmother only.

This increasing family-type challenges the traditional church idea of what it means to be a family, and provides opportunity for churches to meet the unique needs of grandparent-led households. That these households tend to be non-white and economically-stressed provides additional challenges for church ministry.

Each one of these trends challenges the traditional church’s idea of its community, its membership, its inclusivity, and its understanding of gender and race issues. Small churches will face unique challenges, but also unique opportunities in addressing these trends.

However, if denominations, churches, and church networks continue to ignore these society-shaping developments, we will miss the great opportunities for growth, outreach, and church revitalization in the 21st century.

Churches Left Out of Charitable Giving Increase in 2010

While total estimated charitable giving edged up by 3.8% compared to 2009, gifts to churches and religious organizations actually declined when adjusted for inflation.  Philanthropy toward other human services groups, like those which sought funds for the Haiti earthquake disaster, fell even more, registering a 1.5% decline when adjusted for inflation.

The latest information on charitable giving is out, courtesy of the Giving USA Foundation.   Their Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010, is an invaluable tool for those interested in charitable giving, including churches and religious institutions.

Here are the charitable giving recipients who benefited from the rise in giving (subtract approximately 1.6% to adjust for inflation):

  • Educational institutions up by 5.2%
  • Foundations up by 1.9%
  • Health research and organizations up by 1.3%
  • Public-society benefit causes up by 6.2%
  • The arts and humanities up by 5.7%
  • International affairs up by 15.3%
Here are the losers in charitable giving in 2010:
  • Religious groups and organizations at 0.8% (adjusted for inflation -0.8%)
  • Human services at 0.1% (adjusted for inflation -1.5%)
  • Environmental and animal causes at 0.7% (adjusted for inflation -0.9%)
Trends in how people give are also in flux.  While charitable giving as a whole was up 3.8%, individual giving was up by only 2.7%, meaning that the 10.6% rise in corporate giving raised the overall average in giving significantly.  But, giving by foundations is actually down 0.2%, which may reflect a poor return on endowments, or a drop in giving because many foundations would come under the categories of human services, environmental and animal causes, or religion.

What does this mean for small churches in particular?  While overall religious institutions claim the largest piece of the charitable giving pie, at 35% of total giving, contributions to religious groups are not rebounding at the same rate as education, the arts, and international affairs giving.  Based on the demographic that church memberships tend to be older than the population as a whole, the failure of religious giving to recover might reflect the continuing poor returns on investments held by many older adults.

But, I believe that the continuing decline of religious institutions, churches in particular, also means that there are fewer people to give to support churches and their ministries.  To address this problem, and to qualify for gifts from foundations and even government programs, many churches have formed not-for-profit corporations under which they fund and run their programs designed to benefit the common good.  Some churches will have ideological difficulties in making that leap, but other churches which have successfully done so can serve as models.

The good news for churches in all of this is that charitable bequests are up 18.8%.  Your church might consider doing what ours has just done — establish an endowment fund and encourage your members to leave a bequest to the church in their will.  You will need to consult estate-planning professionals to help your church craft a program that will ensure benefactors that their money will be handled carefully to ensure the long-term viability of the congregation they love.  But, with careful planning, churches can take advantage of this trend in charitable giving.

You can view and download a free copy of this giving report at http://www.givingusareports.org/free.php.

Credit:  Giving USA Foundation (2011). Giving USA 2011: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2010. Retrieved from http://www.givingusareports.org/free.php.

Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?

Churches are an important resource in caring for America’s poor, but the job is too big for churches alone. With all the talk about healthcare and the nation’s deficit, I’ve seen more  than one blog suggest that churches take over the responsibility for caring for the nation’s poor.  While that is a noble goal, moving all government “safety net” programs to churches is a numerical impossibility. Let’s just take one example — the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.  The Cato Institute, a conservative think-tank, puts the food stamp program budget at about $75-billion dollars.  But, let’s use a more conservative estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  They estimate that 36-million Americans (1-in-8) receive what most of us call food stamps, or nutrition assistance.  On average, each participant receives $133 per month, or about $1,596 per year. Okay, let’s do the math on those numbers: $1,596 x 36,000,000 = $57,426,000,000 or about $57.5 billion per year.  That’s less than Cato estimates, but will serve our purposes just fine. The total number of congregations in America is generally estimated between 350,00 to 400,000.  Let’s use  the higher guesstimate of 400,000 churches of all denominations in the United States.  The median size of these congregations is 90 in attendance each Sunday. Here’s where the numbers tell the story:  For churches to take over the feeding of America’s poor, each church in America would have to feed 90 people each.  That means that the average church would take on as many poor people as it currently has in attendance! But, even more difficult is the financial picture.  If each church allocated $133 per month to feed each of the 90 people, the total yearly cost would be $143,640 per church per year.  Most churches with 90 in attendance don’t have a total budget of $150K per year, much less a benevolence budget of that amount. Of course, this is only one program.  The SNAP program is run through the US Department of Agriculture, but other programs Continue reading “Think Churches Can Feed America’s Poor?”

Paying Attention to the Outrageous

Hitler_w_youngmenSomebody did it again.  They compared one of our political leaders to Hitler.  It really doesn’t matter who did it because this is becoming a regular tactic for the extremists.  The frustrating thing is they get what they want — publicity.

The media pounce on their pronouncements as though the words they uttered were the first like them.  Bloggers and political sites pick up the refrain — “How dare they invoke the name of Hitler!” The outrage is palpable, and then the next day it starts all over again.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of pop media personalities cheapening the tragedy of the Holocaust with their self-serving tirades.  If this is what passes for discourse and dialogue in America, we are at a new low.

But I also tell myself we must be on the cusp of change because so many are so afraid right now.  In times of turbulent change, the dividers voices are often the loudest.  It was that way during the Civil Rights struggle, it was that way during the Viet Nam war protests, and it’s that way again.

But I also know that the nascent signs of change in churches are encouraging.   Multi-ethnic congregations are blossoming, and new expressions of church are springing up in unlikely places.  Multi-culturalism is becoming almost as popular a topic among church conference planners as multi-site strategies.  More and more congregations are moving out into their communities, connecting with new groups of people who are helped, and who in turn change the helpers. Just as some courageous churches led the way in seeking justice for African-Americans, and later in seeking peace, these churches are the bellwether for change in our society.

That’s what we should be paying attention to — this new consciousness that I have not seen before in so many churches.  A consciousness of need, but of more than need.  An awareness of our responsibility as followers of Jesus to make a difference in the lives of people around us.  Next week I’m speaking to Duke Divinity School students about rural church ministry.  I’m going to talk about this new thing I see happening because it is unprecedented.

Examples emerge in unlikely places.  A church heals its community by planting a community garden in the wake of a local murder.  Another church reaches out to bikers and blue collar workers, not just for worship, but to help create jobs for them.  Churches feed people now in towns where before that need went unmet.  Kids are given school supplies, and encouraged to come after school for tutoring to an urban church that provides a safe haven until their working-class parents get home.

Change must be on the way because the voices of fear are growing louder and more shrill each day.  That’s the reason I pay attention to the outrageous statements of those publicity seekers.  I pay attention because I believe their outrageous statements carry with them a harbinger of hope, an indicator of impending change.   Let’s hope so, and let’s find a place to bring about that change.

If God were GM, He would close a lot of dealerships

Chrtsler_Dealership_C_4400A_full

Both General Motors and Chrysler have announced that up to 25% of their dealerships will not have their franchises renewed.  Reasons cited were:

  1. Some dealers did not carry the full brand lineup. Chrysler wants dealers who carry their entire line from trucks to cars to Jeeps.
  2. Some dealers also carried competitors’ brands. That’s pretty common in smaller communities where one dealership might carry brands and models most suited to their market.
  3. Most of these dealers under-performed. Chrysler said that 25% accounted for only 15% of its total sales.
  4. Some brands are being discontinued. Wouldn’t want to be a Pontiac dealer right now, would you?  Also, Saturn, Hummer, and Saab are on the chopping block one way or another at GM.

But what if we applied that same criteria to churches?  Would your church be in business next week?

Some churches don’t carry the full lineup.  Many prefer to emphasize only the spiritual side of the faith, while leaving off any attempt at physical ministry.  Others are just the opposite, with lots of social programs, but little in the way of evangelism and discipleship.  You get the picture.  Should these churches keep their doors open?

Some churches carry the competitor’s brands, too. Okay, we’ve got to tread carefully here, but I’m thinking particularly about Fred Phelps’ church, Westboro Baptist.  They spew hate and venom towards any and everyone at any opportunity they can get.  They would be the extreme example, but other churches also help the “competition” by either not living the difference Christ makes or by taking a stand in an unloving manner.

Some churches under-perform. GM and Chrysler use an objective criteria to weed out the under-performing dealers — sales numbers.  But, some churches also under-perform in attendance, missions, programs, and outreach.  What should happen to these churches?  I have often contended here that we need to measure more than attendance, especially in small churches; but, even when measuring other factors some churches aren’t cutting it.  What should they do?

Some brands are being discontinued. Denominational identity is fading, as are a host of other emphases that once were very popular.  Remember the 1970s charismatic movement, or spiritual gifts surveys?  Lots of “brands” come and go, and if a church is heavily invested in one narrow perspective, it may find itself out of business in a changing culture.

Fortunately, God is not GM or Chrsyler and churches aren’t dealerships.  Churches tend to rise and decline in an organizational life cycle which can be accelerated by forces outside the church.  But even if we aren’t automotive dealership managers, it might help us to take an inventory of effectiveness periodically.  We might be either surprised or horrified at the result.  What do you think?

We will all be connected forever

“People today are going to stay connected forever,” says Jeff Jarvis.  Jarvis, journalism professor and author of  What Would Google Do? made that observation in a talk to Google employees recently.

Jarvis’s point is that Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Plaxo, FriendFeed, Twitter, Flickr, and a host of other social networking platforms enable people to reconnect with old friends and stay connected forever.  As an example, he talks about reconnecting with his old high school girlfriend — with his wife’s knowledge, of course.  Apparently Jarvis did not break up with her well when he was 17, and reconnecting gave him a way to mend that relationship, and re-establish it on a new basis.

Think of the implications of connected forever for communities of faith — churches, small groups, ministries, mission projects, and so on.  Personal networks that transcend both time and location provide rich opportunities to engage with old friends, make new ones (I don’t know half the people who are my friends on FaceBook), and connect in meaningful ways.

Churches could extend their reach and ministry throughout member networks around the globe.  Projects that need help, resources, people, equipment, and expertise could tap members and their friends worldwide.  Shaun King has a request right now on his blog for help with a high-tech gospel presentation to college students.  We’ll see more and more of that as churches and organizations connect with members’ networks.

Do you know any churches that are tapping into wider networks now?  How are they doing it and what results do they see?  Watch this trend because it will become very important in the future.

What business is your church in?

A probing question companies ask themselves in planning is, “What business are we in?”  You might think it would be obvious that a newspaper, for instance, is in the print news business.  But, not so, according to a popular journalism blogger.

Steve Yelvington says that newspapers are in the business of helping other companies sell their products.  In other words, if it weren’t for advertisers (companies) placing ads in newspapers in order to sell more products, the newspaper wouldn’t have the financial support to stay in business — which is exactly what’s happening to newspapers.

Yelvington’s point is that newspapers either forgot or never understood that they were primarily in the business of helping others sell their products, and that’s why they’re in trouble.

Ask that question of churches, “What business is a church in?” and you’ll get several diffferent answers, as follows:

Churches are in the worship business. But, isn’t that getting the cart before the horse? Why do people worship? Who or what do people worship?  And even if you narrow it to the worship of God, then whose god and how should he/she be worshipped?

Churches are in the teaching business. If we could just get people to learn about God, Jesus, Christianity, doctrine, and so forth, we’d be successful.  Most discipleship programs are built on knowledge transfer.  Christian education is wonderful, but knowledge, even about God, is not the business we are in.

Churches are in the helping business. This has several variations, such as serving, caring, loving, and ministering.  But if that’s our business how are we different from the local charity, foodbank, or clothing drive?  Churches may help, but that’s not our core business.

Churches are in the salvation business. This also has several nuances such as eternity, soul, conversion, and transformation.  Of course, the big problem here is that the vast majority of people who live around the world are not looking for salvation, and don’t see the need to be saved from either hell, the devil, sin, separation from God or eternal punishment.  Nor do many see the need to be saved to heaven, eternity, unity with God, and so on.  So, if we’re in the salvation business, we’re in big trouble.

What’s the answer to the question “What business are churches in?”  Here it is:

I think churches are in the meaning business — the meaning of life, the meaning of my existence, the meaning of family, the meaning of love, the meaning of suffering, the meaning of  a thousand other experiences that can only be explained by God.

How do we stick to our business?  By focusing on the answers to the big and small questions of life like, Why am I here? Who is God? What am I supposed to do?  How can my life have significance (meaning) in a world where so much is meaningless?

Those are the questions we should be answering each week, each Sunday, in every worship service, in every small group, and with every person.

Churches are in the meaning business — because if we aren’t nobody is.  That really is the point of religion, isn’t it?  To help people find meaning in all of the confusing, conflicting, crazy stuff of life.  Of course, those of us who are followers of Christ have found meaning in Jesus.  For us, Jesus is the key that unlocks the mystery of meaning.  But our experience of Christ began with some kind of search for meaning.

What do you think?  Agree, disagree, or have another answer?  I think this is a really important question and we need to know the answer.  What business is church in?  What do you think?

Recession, the domino effect, and churches

dominosOne of the things I learned while I attended seminary in Texas was that dominoes are for more than lining up and knocking down.  Be that as it may, we’re headed for an ecclesiastical domino effect brought to us by an economy in recession — a recession, we were told today, that started a year ago.  Like those cascading dominoes, the economic effects radiated out from the subprime mortgage crisis, to investment banks, to real banks, to automobile manufacturers, to homeowners, and now to the religious community as well.  

In an informal poll conducted October 15, 2008, I asked the question, What impact is the economic crisis having on your church?  

  • 17% said it was having no effect.
  • 42% said their church offerings were down.
  • 22% said their church was cutting spending.
  • 17% said their church was cutting their budget for 2009.
  • 2% answered “other” which I take to mean the economy is having an effect I did not list.

In other words, 83% noted a negative impact of the economic crisis on their church.  Spin that out to missions offerings, local ministries supported by churches, and parachurch groups whose support comes from churches and their members and you have the makings of a religious financial reordering.  Robert Parham of Ethics Daily noted today that denominations from Episcopalians to Presbyterians to Baptists are facing budget shortfalls, staff layoffs, and programs cuts all due to decreased revenue streams.  Not only are regular contributions down, but investment income has been cut as the stock market plummeted in recent weeks.  

What does all this mean?  I think there are several implications:

  1. Churches, parachurch ministries, and individual church members are all affected by this economic tsunami.  Our church’s stock holdings have declined over $40,000 in a few weeks, losing almost 50% of their value.  
  2. Fewer dollars will be available to support the local church, and fewer dollars will be sent on to denominational headquarters, and parachurch ministries.
  3. Some faith-based organizations will go broke or be downsized, succumbing to economic forces that cut off credit and squeeze contributors.  
  4. Hard ministry decisions will be made as budget shortfalls loom.  The local church will pass along this economic reordering to denominations and parachurch ministries which will also cut staff and programs to the bare essentials.  
  5. Organizations that survive will not be the largest or the most well-known.  Organizations that weather this economic storm will be those that can adjust quickly and rally supporters while still maintaining their core mission.  But that may not include denominational headquarters which might be viewed as more bureaucratic than independent or church-based ministries.  
  6. Theologies of ministry may get reimagined as choices are made between feeding people physically or feeding them spiritually.  Those are not always exclusive choices, but may be in this economy.  
  7. New voices will emerge from the wreckage of old models.  With waning influence and declining budgets, the 80’s culture wars will seem oddly out of place in the face of real human need.  New champions of Christian compassion will be heard above the din of religious posturing.  The Millennial generation will lead this new non-dogmatic activism.  
  8. More volunteers and new movements will start new ministries, jumping into the void left by budget cuts in government, secular helping organizations, and older Christian programs.  
  9. Christians will reorganize themselves across denominational lines, cooperating and collaborating with other faith groups and secular agencies to achieve common goals at the local level. 
  10. Decentralized, local grassroots efforts will spring up replacing top-down denominational campaigns.

The wreckage of the consumer age may yet usher in a new concern for doing good in God’s name.   As economic conditions worsen, we could also see a cascade of compassion in the name of Christ.  That’s a domino effect we could live with for a long time to come.