Posted by: smstrouse | September 14, 2013

Moving the Church (Slowly) into the 21st Century

We talk a lot these days about the sad state of the church, how membership is dwindling due to a myriad of factors. We put the blame on our stressed-out culture, our over-worked and over-scheduled lifestyles. We point our fingers at the secularization of our society, in which kids now go to soccer practice on Sunday morning.  And we look with bewilderment (and annoyance) at that very large number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Oh, we’ve tried to change. Back in the 90’s we ran to all the Church Growth seminars and learned how to create ‘seeker’ services. We formed worship bands, creating worship wars between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ services. Changing Church gurus promised that if we carefully followed their model, our congregations would become megachurches. One program was actually called “Blueprints for Congregational Growth.” But I can attest that, despite following instructions to the letter, my last congregation did not become a megachurch – thank God!  It’s still a small church in a rust belt city doing great things with creativity and imagination.

So I get that many of us are reluctant to jump onto the bandwagon of yet another ‘new paradigm.’ I chuckle when I remember my older colleagues grumbling about the church growth movement. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t excited about these new developments, why they wouldn’t get with the program. Now that I’m the older colleague, I get it. It’s hard to be a pastor, trained in one way to be a leader in the church, then asked to do it all in a very different way. So, former colleagues, if you happen to be reading this – my apologies to you for my youthful arrogance.

However, that doesn’t mean that I won’t do my best to face the challenges of being the church of the 21st century. I believe that I’ve done that, in my commitment to progressive Christianity, inclusive language for humanity and expansive language for God, and my willingness to take a stand for issues of justice.

And now we’ve decided to move beyond finger-pointing and rhetoric about the growth of the ‘None’ demographic, the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,’ identifiers, and the ‘Church Alumni Society’ (described by Bishop John Shelby Spong). At First United, we’re about to embark upon a new adventure of reaching out to all these folks. But let me very clear: we aren’t doing it in order to drag them into our church, give them envelopes, put them on committees, and expect them to become like us. The goal is not church growth, at least not in the older sense of that phrase.

It is about the growth of the realm of God, but that kind of language will take some ‘splaining before we start throwing it around out there.  For starters, it’s all about listening , really listening, to the hurts and hopes of people, wherever they are on their spiritual journey – from the never-churched to the victims of abuse by the church.

The challenging part for those of us who love programs and plans, goals and measurable outcomes is that there’s no way to know what will emerge from this endeavor. My hope is that there will be some who will be attracted to the kind of community First United offers. My bigger hope is that a new community will come forth, organized from within by people who have found a safe pace to explore issues of faith and meaning. My biggest hope is that the two communities will find ways to share their experiences and their wisdom – together bringing to birth the church of the 21st century.

So stay tuned to this space. I hope that we’ll have an official launch date soon. But, in effect, we’ve already begun.

And this old-ish pastor is excited!


  1. When I wrote The Purpose Driven Church, I predicted that church health – not church growth – would be the primary concern of the 21st Century church. I believe that prediction is proving itself true.


  2. Yes, the church is participating in the neo-pagan, earth-worshiping, sustainable development touted by the United Nations, and both major American political parties. Additionally, the rules that the church must adhere to in administering governmental programs were recently laid out by President Clinton.


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