Time to Surf?

Photo by Nathan Cowley

On a recent vacation I had the opportunity to take some surf lessons on the beach. I grew up skateboarding, I’m a descent wakeboarder, and I can snowboard, so I didn’t think it would be all that difficult. And I was right – once I actually stood up on the board, it wasn’t all that hard. But getting up, that was the challenge! And not only getting up, but getting back out to catch the next wave! My patent instructor would stand in about 6′ of water, hold the board for me while I got onto my stomach on the board, and then tell me when to start paddling for the wave and let me go. I would make an attempt to stand, sometimes successfully, and then jump off quickly before I got too shallow, or fall off and tumble into the shallows. Then I would turn around and walk/swim the board back out through wave after crashing wave to my instructor. It was exhausting! I longed to simply get up on that board and take a long ride on the wave. I appreciate wakeboarding a lot more now. Give me a boat!

I read a fabulous Verge Network article today by Hugh Halter called “Cheap Church: Bi-Vocational Living.” In the article he discusses many issues that I have also been thinking about in terms of the way that churches are changing, and the challenge of leading a congregation in light of those changes. Some of these changes are financial, some are cultural, some are structural, and some are spiritual. And of course, all of these changes are interconnected. Major shifts in just one of these areas would be challenge enough for the Church, but right now all of these areas are changing at one time, and changing rapidly. It is like we are standing in waste-deep water on the beach, but rather than withstanding one wave, catching our breath, and then fighting off another, we are instead facing a massive tsunami that is way over our head and unrelenting! Some people see this happening and say that the Church in the U.S. will simply drown. Others say, “let’s get the surfboard!” Here are some brief thoughts on some of these challenges.

Emerging generations of Christians in the U.S. don’t give financially in the same way as previous generations. I’m not sure if I have read any definitive statistics on whether they give more or less, but I do know that they give differently. Hugh points out in his article that they prefer to give to things that have “meaning” – either something that they perceive to be making a big difference in the lives of others or something that gives them personal satisfaction. Compare this to previous generations that gave out of a sense of “loyalty” to an organization, and often in the church out of spiritual obligation to “tithe” (give 10%). This means that even if these young Christians are official members of a church they are probably not interested in giving most of their charitable donations to the church – especially since paying for staff, buildings, and utilities doesn’t check the “meaning” box.

The western church’s business model based on the expectation of growth, optimism, and promise of financial blessing has proven to be a consumer nightmare.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

Churches of all kinds are feeling this pinch in their budgets and wondering how to move forward. Some dig harder into old habits, requiring members to pledge and running ongoing “stewardship campaigns” that are often thinly-veiled manipulation campaigns using modern fundraising practices laced with scripture. Others have adapted by allowing people to give to specific causes within the congregation (thus meeting the “meaning” standard). This of course leaves a smaller and smaller pool to cover the unsexy costs of keeping the lights on and the lawn mowed. And some are realizing that there are tectonic shifts happening that will require greater adaption by the Church. I appreciate that Hugh mentions the emerging economic realities in his article. Things like: the emerging generation of young adults will be the first in U.S. history to make less income than their parents, and most people have to remain mobile and moving in order to get better jobs.

As people lose their sense of stability, security and sustainability, their tendency is to move from generosity to scarcity—they simply won’t give like they used to. At present, the average Christian gives to the church at the exact percentage non-believers give to charities—just fewer than three percent.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

Obviously some new ways of doing things are required. As a church planter, the one thing discussed often in my circles is the idea of a bi-vocational or “co-vocational” pastors. Of course, there are plenty of challenges associated with this, but there are also plenty of opportunities for further engagement of a pastor with the community. Another common assumption being challenged is that of the church building (often confusingly called “the church”). How much building do we need, and is the building being fully utilized or sitting empty most of the week? Are there other ways to use existing community space that might meet our needs? These two areas alone (staff & property) account for the bulk of most church budgets.

People, even those inside the church, are exhausted at giving to boxes or buildings whose influence is waning, and they simply won’t give to keep the lights on or pay the staff. They want to help real people with real needs.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

If people don’t give financially in the same way that they used to, they also don’t attend worship and other church activities in the same way that they used to. And in my experience, this has less to do with any generational changes, and more to do with larger cultural shifts. I often tell people that I am lucky to see our church elders two Sundays a month! And that is not to disparage the elders, they are the ones elected by the congregation because of their spiritual maturity! This is to say that if even the most spiritually committed are at worship about 1/2 the time, that means that many others are going to be there even less than that!

As church attendance declines nationally, and as we fail on a global scale to see new disciples made, mega churches and growing churches are tasting what could be the last wave of transfer growth before the reality of the trends hit home.

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

There are definitely many reasons for this shift, and undoubtedly some of it has to do with increasing “competition” for people’s time from things like sporting events, kid’s activities, and endless entertainment options. Here in the Pacific Northwest, even a sunny day can be competition – and how do you compete with the sun? (Hint: you can’t!). Add to this mix the fact that many more people are working on Sunday mornings and on nights and weekends. Also, the fastest growing demographic in many U.S. communities are single-parent homes. I can’t imagine life as a single parent, but I can imagine how difficult it would be to get the family to a worship service after a hectic week! This is to say nothing about the access to endless content online with the click of a button. YouTube, podcasts, email subscriptions and more offer access to all kinds of Christian content from sermons by celebrity preachers, podcasts by professional theologians, to live-steaming videos of worship services and worship music on-demand. Some of this content is excellent, and some of it is garbage, and unfortunately few churches are doing anything to help navigate these waters.

The response to this in some churches has been to compete head-on! Make a consumer-oriented worship experience featuring the best live concert-style worship music, the most awesome venue, cutting-edge advertising and technology, entertaining preachers, etc. And of course, this will often result in what Hugh calls “transfer growth.” These exciting congregations will often attract consumer-Christians from older, traditional, smaller, or less-appealing churches. Other churches have responded by digging in their heals and holding on dearly to the way that they have always done things in the name of faithfulness and orthodoxy – even if it means that they will slowly die. They pretend that nothing has changed except for the level of sinfulness and compromise in the population at large.

Yes, there will always be churches that expand through transfer growth and that can keep their pastors paid and their churchy folks happy and safe, but what about the rest of us who are no longer content to simply exist in the religious zone?

– Hugh Halter, Cheap Church

All of this, in my opinion, misses the bigger problem. Churches of all stripes are failing to effectively make disciples in the world that we live in today (this topic is already the source of some of my other blog posts and will be again in the future). Time is precious, and people are less willing to spend it doing something that they perceive to have little value. The truth is, the Church does not need to compete at all, but it does need to think about new models. The Church already has the one thing that people desperately need and that they cannot find elsewhere: the community formed by Jesus living together on mission. This community can be structured in a lot of ways that work well in this cultural context – but it will necessitate new forms inspired by the Holy Spirit.

So are we at a moment of desperation or opportunity, or both? I suppose the answer to that question depends on whether we want to try to stand our ground and take on the waves, turn our backs and ignore the waves, or grab our surfboard and take a ride.

1 thought on “Time to Surf?

  1. A conundrum for sure. I was raised to tithes. You can never outgive God. He truly blesses. This might lead to missional communities only. A church building is expensive. Like I said, a conundrum.

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