By Pastor Kurt Havel
If things don’t change I don’t see many congregations around in thirty years. Now that I have your attention, let me elaborate. I have an observation to share with you, which forms the basis for my opening remark. It is this: we are an older people trying to do church the old way.
We are the very typical protestant “graying congregation” in America today. Look around at worship and who do you not see? You don’t see teenagers. You don’t see many young or middle age families. You don’t see anyone different from those of us who are there. It is sort of like the elephant in the room, we know it’s an issue but we aren’t talking about it.
We (through our Call Committee) put in our congregational profile for the synod that we want a pastor who is skilled in youth and family ministry. Why? There aren’t active youth or young families with whom to do ministry. The new pastor will not have a magic wand to wave over our community and bring in those who are not here now. We need to ask why they are not here now, before a new pastor comes to work with us.
Here are some questions related to our dilemma:
- Is our worship relevant to a younger culture? Do we need to offer a more contemporary style along with our traditional style? Why is worship participation such a low priority for way too many families?
- Is our preaching and teaching not relevant to the issues confronting young families?
- Do we offer relevant programming for those wished-for families? Have we asked them what would be helpful from their church, or have we assumed too much?
- Are we as open and welcoming as we think we are? Are there invisible obstacles?
- What does it mean to be living the ELCA Lutheran life in this community—do we have something unique to offer from our rich heritage?
- Why don’t we have any high school youth registered for the 2015 National Youth Gathering in Detroit?
- Why are our bells resting quietly in a closet?
- Why is our financial support lagging behind our needs? Aren’t we grateful and excited about what God is doing in our midst?
There are some very good things happening: 30 kids in Kids Club; 25 to 30 older adults in midweek Bible study; an increasing worship attendance; an active quilting group; a food distribution program; a viable Stephen Ministry program; a woman’s small group.
Before we can commit to change we need to discern what needs to change. Or, we can decide to just ride it out and see what happens. I don’t think we will like what happens if we decide to maintain the status quo.
On October 5, 2014, the long and storied history of Grace Lutheran Church in Saginaw held its final worship service. Declining membership, internal strife and not enough dollars to sustain the ministry came home to roost. At the same time in Saginaw, St. John Lutheran church (which also faced the question of closing its doors) took the dramatic step of freeing up funds from its endowment (yes, change will likely cost money) so that it could call a full time pastor and have a new vision for what it means for them to be “in the city for good.” One woman there told me a couple of years ago, “I don’t care what we do just so long as we exist long enough for me to buried from here.” Is that a mission statement that will change the world?
Think about those who sit around us for Saturday/Sunday worship—only a handful of us will even be alive in another thirty years. Who will be the next congregation? Who are the courageous risk takers today who will step up like those charter members did 30 years ago?
My suggestion is that the Council form a Mission Strategy Task Force to begin a discussion about our future. Such a task force must include some of the folks who are not currently on our radar, but who consider themselves members. The task force could begin with the questions I have posed or any others that percolate to the top, AND be committed to surveying and listening to members and non-members alike. This could be hard, fun and holy work. Are we up for it? Are we willing to talk about new ideas without judging them too quickly? Could God be nudging you to step up for this work?
Think how much more appealing our congregation would be for a prospective servant leader if there was a sense of excitement about concrete plans we have for God’s work through our hands for our community.
Do you have the heart for this important work? Everything has to be on the table for an open and honest discussion.
On the journey with you – Pastor Havel