It would be great if there existed a single set of discernment or action steps which, if followed, would produce new vitality and numerical growth for congregations. Sadly, that’s not likely. We are a culture in which the fastest growing segment of “religious” people is the category, None. Nones are those who claim no religious affiliation, or no religious beliefs. Among all Americans, Nones make up 16% of the adult population; among young adults the number is 25% and climbing. In addition, the United States is increasingly religiously diverse, and the percent of Americans who identify with Christianity is steadily declining. In our context, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Every church has the calling to be the Body of Christ in its neighborhood; for its neighbors. And just as every neighborhood has its own character, so every church is both unique and uniquely equipped – by God – to touch their neighbor’s lives, and bear faithful witness to the resurrection of Jesus in that place.
For example: the Northeast is the least religious region of the United States, and the Boston, MA, area is among the areas of the Northeast least interested in religion, specifically Christianity. So, First Church Cambridge (FCC) is pleased to find itself drawing a large number of under-forty adults even though it is, in content and form, a traditional UCC church.
Author and church consultant, Sarah B. Drummond, explored First Church Cambridge to uncover its secret. She identified three core attributes that attract young adults:
(1) The church is clear about its theology, but creates room for questioning, exploration and doubt;
(2) It has a warm, welcoming atmosphere devoid of a sense of desperation; and,
(3) Members are called and invited to make an institutional commitment, though flexibility is built in to how they participate.
In an article posted on the Alban Institute website, Drummond expands on each of those key elements. Along the way, she identifies another five attributes of the church that provide a context and create a culture that supports the life and practice of the church, providing depth and helping integrate those three core attributes.
(1) The church membership has an established climate of living the Christian faith by engaging in historic faith practices;
(2) The church has a clear vision that it acts on;
(3) The leadership considers the goal of reaching young adults to be of sufficient value to create an entrepreneurial (experimental) climate with financial support for experiments;
(4) It uses young adult seminary students to design outreach to young adults; and,
(5) The seminarians make appropriate use of technology to meet the needs of the target population.
Without question, the leadership of FCC targeted the unchurched young adults living in the Cambridge-Boston area. It also becomes apparent, through the article, that the mission to young adults grew out of FCC’s longer-standing culture of encouraging church members to practice twelve traditional Christian disciplines described in the book, Practicing our Faith, which are supported by the website of the same name. FCC’s long-standing practice of Christian disciplines created a vital, distinctly Christian climate that helped the congregation to think about its location, resources and opportunities within a Christian framework.
Out of its life of individual and corporate discipleship, FCC developed a clear vision for reaching out to young adults, then partnered with local seminary students (The Cambridge-Boston area is home to five major seminaries) to innovate; to experiment in building bridges to their non-believing and non-practicing peers. The church offered practical, spiritual and financial support to their entrepreneurial interns, which in turn made it possible for those students to employ the technology their age cohort favors in ways those young adults can understand and appreciate.
That’s vision. And in an upscale urban setting like Cambridge, it’s easy to see why the church could imagine such a ministry and budget the resources to pull it off. Once the church’s inner dynamics are understood, it is no surprise that FCC found itself able to do what too few churches are doing – draw in significant numbers of young adults. But their approach is unlikely to work in a different setting, or where a church is struggling month by month to keep its doors open.
So consider another case.
The tiny Episcopal Church of Our Savior, located in the neglected east side of Dallas, had no money, few members, and a desultory future back in 2003 when the members asked themselves a life-changing question: if our church closed its doors, would it be missed?
Realizing it would not, members began to ask what they could do to better connect with their neighbors. It had to be something that did not require money. In taking stock of their resources they noticed two things: they had 4 acres of land, and a long-time member who was a lifelong gardener.
A year later, they had six 10-foot by 24-foot garden plots that had produced over 1,000 pounds of produce for their local food shelter. Eight years later, they had generated 20 tons of produce, established additional garden plots for neighbors who wanted to grow their own food, had set a fruit orchard, and had experimented with keeping honey bees.
They did not see their worship attendance numbers grow. However, they have seen a succession of volunteers from near and far come to help clear, plow, sow, weed and harvest. They have seen significantly larger churches visit to observe and to learn; and without question, the congregation has seen that, now, if they were to close their doors, they would certainly be missed.
That’s vision. And vision is the real message. Congregations are called to take stock of their setting and their assets, and then to develop a vision for ministry that applies the gifts and talents God has bestowed upon their church to the needs of the people who live in their corner of creation.
It is not an issue of money. It is not an issue of having more hands. It is an issue of faith; discipleship. And it is a matter of the membership identifying a shared vision, one they can embrace together, and acting upon it.
To learn more about FCC, read Sarah B. Drummond’s article on the Alban Institute website.
Explore the Practicing our Faith website, which introduces twelve timeless disciplines that have shaped the Church and been shaped by the Church. The website has enough material to work as a stand-alone support for congregations or individuals interested in adopting the Christian practices that helped shape FCC’s culture; however it works even better in concert with the book, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.
Learn more about Church of Our Savior through this article on Faith & Leadership, the online journal of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The article includes conversation-starting questions that can be used with a church board or study group.