The Church for Today (and not 1955)

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

This morning at church, things are what they are on most Sundays. We had about 15 people who sang, prayed and listened to the sermon.  We talked about making sandwiches for the homeless in a few weeks time.

But something unusual did happen today.  For whatever reason, an elderly woman was dropped off at 9AM for the service held by a church that rents our space.  Their worship service was at 11.  The woman used a wheelchair.  And because our heater is on the blink, the church was cold, causing her to shiver.  The congregants fretted about leaving this woman in the narthex for two hours, so it was decided that we bring her into the sanctuary where we had some space heaters going.  The woman had to go to two services, but I think she enjoyed herself.  I know it warmed my heart when she was served communion along with everyone else.

This is a wonderful example of church in action.  But I think that if it were known to some denominational people, First Christian-St. Paul would be closed.

Why?  Well, we have a tiny membership that barely keeps things afloat.  They can’t afford a full time pastor.  The money is always tight.  If we were to judge this congregation according to the standards of say 1955, we would not be considered sustainable.  And in the eyes of some who still unknowingly follow those standards, we should have closed a long time ago.

One of the things that saddens me is when a church closes.  Now I  know all things must die, and no church lasts forever.  But sometimes I think in mainline Protestantism, we have lost the meaning of what is true church and because of this, we tend to pull the cord on congregations too early.  There might be other ideas available if people could get out of making churches what they were when Eisenhower was president.

In the 1950s, mainline Protestant denominations were a potent spiritual, civic and cultural force in America.  People filled the pews of churches, because of culture as much as because of faith in Jesus.  Pastors and churches were part of the community, acting as civic boosters as well as religious leaders.  National leaders listened to what we had to say.

Lots of churches were planted in that era.  They were planted in areas where there wasn’t a denominational presence and set up shop.  Usually these churches were planted in growing suburbs where people moved into new homes.  For the most part suburban churches were built and the people came in droves to be a part of them. An article from 2010 explains the important role Mainline Protestant churches had in our culture:

Historically, members of mainline Protestant churches were the leaders of American civic culture and institutions. Whether it was as bank president, town manager, local newspaper editor, or as the state senator and governor, mainline Protestant Christian commitments and values were both represented and reflected in the world view of public leaders – with the result that the United States was distinctly mainline Protestant Christian in outlook….Back when mainline Protestantism provided the worldview and values of the nation, mainline churches did not have to spend much organizational effort on teaching their values to their children; the culture reinforced their views. By contrast, African American churches, Catholics, non-mainline versions of Christianity, and non-Christian faith communities (notably Jewish groups) had to be intentional about teaching their views and values to their offspring. Non-mainline faith communities paid particular attention to three areas of church life: worship that clearly reflected and inculcated a particular view of God and humankind, religious education that intentionally articulated those worship values, and fellowship that provided social and cultural reinforcement for the community’s values, especially where they diverged from those of the dominant culture.

But fast forward 60 years and we find that mainline Protestantism is no longer the force in society it once was.  The ultimate insiders were now on the outside.  Churches lost members.  Some Denominational executives seem stymied as to what can be done. Others think it is time to face reality and begin closing churches can cutting staff to make ends meet. Our leaders in many ways are still in a mindset from the 1950s, which means that churches are viewed in that same light.  If a church has lost members or maybe has lost vision of focus and it’s budget has taken a hit, that church is a prime candidate for closure.  No one necessarily make a congregation close its ministry, but in my observation it is strongly suggested.

In some ways, when churches were planted in the 50s and 60s, they were planted in areas where say, there wasn’t a Presbyterian church in the area.  What this means is that congregations were viewed as franchises of a certain brand.  This is a different way of seeing congregations from evangelicals.  The language I hear about evangelical church planting is that they move into an area that might not have many people who identify as Christians and they want to share Christ with people.  The language used when some of the suburban mainline churches were planted were about serving a potential population of church goers.  It seems that in one example, the church exists to serve the people.  In the other, the church exists to extend the brand.

Companies like Target or Kroger close stores that are underperforming.  It doesn’t really matter if that area then has no location of their store, that location is closed.  I think inadvertently, this how we view congregations.  We keep the performing ones open and close the underpreforming ones.

But an underperforming church isn’t the same as a Target store with poor sales.  I’ve seen churches close that still had some potential for new ministry.  Of course the church would have to change, but the tools for a new or revived church were available.

Also, when a church closes, there very well might be ministries that can be harmed.  There are churches that are stuggling and yet are performing ministries to people around them, doing such things as helping single mothers in their communities or feeding the homeless.  If the church goes away, it might very well mean that the people served by the ministry are threatened.

When a church is struggling maybe what needs to be done is to assess what can be done in ministry.  Maybe they can’t afford a full time pastor.  Could they afford a part time one?  Could a leader of the church become a commissioned or licensed minister?  What ministries can be done by the church?  Are they able to do ministry with a small membership?

Again, I am not saying you should never close a church.  But I am saying that this should be the last resort, not the first.  A church with a small membership and small budget is not a failure.  But all of this means having a very different mindset when it come to churches.  It means grading churches with a different criteria than one from the midpoint of the last century.  It means understanding what the church means in the first place and how that is expressed in a local setting.  We have to understand what a church is for in a local community.  As the quote above notes, conservative and African American churches have a better understanding of the role of the church, especially when society runs counter to their values.  The problem with mainline churches is because we were at the center of American society, culture instilled and reineforced the values that were expressed in church.  Because culture did all the heavy lifting, we viewed churches like a local franchise.  Our culture no longer reineforces Christian values.  Church can’t be viewed anymore extending the denominational brand or judged on “performance.”  There needs to be more focus in seeing congregations as places where Christians are formed, where church values are taught.

The other thing that has to change is the concept of the pastor.  The standard in the past was that a mainline pastor had a full-time salary.  But many churches are not able to fork over the 40 to 50 thousand dollars to pay for a pastor’s salary, let alone pay for their health care and retirement.  This means that churches have to start looking at part-time pastoral help.  Pastors will have to consider becoming bivocational pastors instead of seeing the church as their sole place of employment.  African American churches have long been places where the pastor worked on Sundays at church and somewhere else during the week.  I think this change is going to be hard for mainliners because we have envisioned the pastorate as a professional akin to a lawyer or doctor.  But doctors and lawyers are paid by entities that can afford to pay high salaries for their expertise.  This means that we have to look at pastors more in terms of artists instead of lawyers.  An artist doesn’t expect to make a lot of money from their work. They do what they do for the love of it.  Sometimes I think a lot of mainline pastors are in churches for reasons other than the love of sharing the good news and caring for others.  Yes, pastors should make a just salary.  But if a church can’t afford to pay a pastor $40 or 50K, but could pay maybe $15 or 20K, they should not be viewed as a failure.  A part time pastor is not inferior to a full time one.

It’s time for mainline churches to be judge according to 21st century standards and not 20th century ones.  Churches of 2015 look different than churches of 1955.  Mainline church leaders need to start living in the present and not in the past.  Congregations are more viable than we think…but we have to use a different measuring stick.

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