I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life working in congregations that were much larger a generation or two ago. There’s a lot of grief to work through, and faithful church folks often feel like failures, because the numbers in attendance and income are smaller than they used to be. Regularly I’ve had church members come to me and compare our church to the big one down the street. “Why aren’t we like them?” they ask. Any answer to that question is complex, but for me, it ultimately boils down to one answer: Because God never called you to be that church. That church is hopefully already doing what God needs done. God needs this church to do something else.
Most of the reasons churches like PHCC have declined in numbers have to do with cultural changes that are far beyond a local congregation’s control. When younger generations in large numbers do not want to affiliate with the religious institutions of their parents and grandparents, there is not much a local church can do to counteract such sweeping cultural change. The only thing I really blame congregations today for is spending energy mourning the past rather than celebrating God is up to in the present and what God will do in the future. After all, our faith is not in buildings, programs, worship attendance, money, ministers or anything else except for God. Either we believe that God is capable of accomplishing what God wants in the world or not. God will get done what God wants, but apparently God wishes us to join in the fun. We can’t do that if we only look backwards and in effect tell God to do things like we used to do them.
The unprecedented cultural changes we are seeing in terms of religion and spirituality actually offer churches like PHCC an opportunity to minister like never before. People in our culture still need community, rituals to mark the significant events in their lives, opportunities to connect with the Divine and spaces to be vulnerable and to share their pain. The church historian and writer Diana Bass writes the following about our times:
Many, if not most, contemporary people live as vagrants—spiritually, intellectually, geographically, morally and relationally. Vague awareness of this new reality creates much social anxiety and can potentially fuel fundamentalisms, inquisitions and culture wars…. In an age of fragmentation, it may well be the case that the vocation of congregations is to turn tourists into pilgrims—those who no longer journey aimlessly, but rather, those who journey in God and whose lives are mapped by the grace of Christian practices.
In yesterday’s church email, I wrote about approaching our spiritual lives as pilgrimages—journeying towards a spiritual destination and letting go of anything holding us back from reaching it. What if a church could transform itself from an organization that teaches people how to be a good church member (attend worship on Sunday, contribute money, and serve on a committee or two) into a community that helps people become spiritual pilgrims who grow closer to God?
The spiritual hunger I see in our culture is different from the past only in style rather than substance. People still hunger for meaning and want to connect with something transcendent. People want something more, but they are not looking for a club to join. If churches wish to not only live but thrive in this new landscape, they must stop thinking about their own survival and start thinking about helping people on their spiritual journeys.
God doesn’t need another megachurch. There are already plenty of those, and many of them serve a political cause or a charismatic leader’s ego rather than God. God does want, however, communities of faithful people who will follow Christ’s example of giving themselves away to serve others. I can promise you that any church which spends more time opening itself to God’s work in the present than mourning its past will have a thriving future. What thriving looks like in the future, of course, will be different from what it looked like in the past.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851