What Kind of Church Will They Inherit?

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The Bishop's Blog

Second in a series of reflections on Fresh Expressions, the Florida Conference and United Methodism and our mission with the “Nones” and “Dones."

An important distinction in recent reflection about the church has centered around the words “attractional” and “missional.”   An attractional church sees itself as the center toward which people and resources flow. A missional church sees itself as a gathering from which people and resources flow toward the world.  Attractional absorbs people into community. Missional sends them out. And of course most healthy and vital congregations are both attractional and missional.

The categories of “nones” and “dones” (Pew Research Center, U.S.), “non-churched” and “de-churched” (Church Army Research, U.K.) make it clear that the renewal of the church will not occur as we add new and different worship services or develop clever advertising campaigns (the British call them “schemes”!) to attract the outsiders to come in.  Indeed, the conversation about “attractional” and “missional” church is at the heart of the Fresh Expressions movement, although a missional church is not a Fresh Expression, and vice versa. 

Fresh Expressions are not attractional.  United Methodists will remember an advertising campaign with the words “our hearts, our minds, our doors are always open.”  The flaw of this campaign, at least for the U.S. context, was that it assumed an attractional church model, in which outsiders would find the insiders to be nice, tolerant and open-minded people.  Upon making this discovery, the outsiders would then join us on the inside.  And when this happened, praise God!

But the reality is that a significant number of men and women in the U.S. (and in the U.K.) will never cross the threshold of a church door.  This may be due to the actual harm people have experienced from the church through judgment or neglect.  It is also the result of conceptions of church in the popular media, where we are portrayed in a consistently negative and irrelevant light.  Some of our wounds are self-inflicted, and some of the challenge is what George Hunter calls “the end of the home field advantage.” 

The self-inflicted wounds would be experiences of clergy misconduct and boundary violation, exclusion of persons from participation in local churches for reasons that appear hypocritical and judgmental, and acceptance of mediocrity in the teaching and preaching office that renders the gospel as boring and irrelevant.  The “end of the home field advantage” signifies that we no longer live in Christendom.  In the U.S., slightly more than one-half of the population lives in 144 counties, while slightly less than one-half live in almost 3000 counties (see the research of the economist Richard Florida). In these urban areas, the church is certainly no longer on any kind of “home field," to use an athletic metaphor. 

We find ourselves in the present moment struggling with tectonic shifts in church participation, and there are numerous reasons.  One term employed in the Fresh Expressions movement helps to explain how we arrived here:  the fragile nature of “inherited church.”   Inherited church speaks of the orderly process by which a generation passes the faith, wedded to participation in a particular local church, to the next generation or two.  And thus in some churches there are multi-generations:  grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren.  This is increasingly not the reality in the Church of England, where in 48% of the churches there are less than 5 persons under the age of 16. It is true in many of our United Methodist churches, where in a given year there are no professions or reaffirmations of faith; in 2014 in the Florida Conference, 141 local churches (or 22% of our congregations) did not have a new faith commitment.  Lovett Weems has noted that the difference in the rural church of today in the U.S., as opposed to 30 years ago, in that the rural church is often not multi-generational.  And as Bishop Graham Cray writes in the introduction to Mission-Shaped Church, “the nature of community has so changed that no one strategy will be adequate to fulfill the Anglican incarnational principle in Britain today” (x); this certainly seems accurate in the context of the U.S. and Florida today.

The inherited church model also assumed that we were passing our faith along to the next generations in our church in credible ways. The excellent work of theologian Kenda Creasy Dean is sobering in her identification of “moral therapeutic deism” as the default theology of today’s youth (and their parents!).  The following is her definition of the faith we have in fact passed on:

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die. 

If the next generations have not inherited our church (because of mobility and limitations of the parish system), and if they have inherited a faith that is less robust than a generously orthodox, trinitarian and biblical one, where are we?  Confining our missionary strategy to the traditional parish is clearly not bearing fruit, in either the UK or the US, and among denominations and traditions across a spectrum.  The strategic genius of Fresh Expressions lies in its willingness to reclaim the content of faith, to re-center on the movement of the Holy Spirit, and to reimagine church outside the walls of our buildings and outside the hours of our scheduled services. 

As the authors of Mission Shaped Church note, “Perhaps our greatest need is of a baptism of imagination about forms of church."   God does indeed go before us, in space and in time, and is not confined by our categories of either/or.  For the people called Methodist, this is as simple as rediscovering the power of God’s prevenient grace and the call to see the world as our parish.  As Bob and Mary Hopkins of Anglican Church Planting Initiatives reminded our study/immersion team this summer, these are indeed some of the most positive characteristics of inheritance, which at times we have neglected, like treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13). 

Questions:  So, in your own local church, how is the strategy of attractional church working?  And do you assume that the next generation will inherit today’s church?

Next:  Why We Need New Forms of Church

To learn more:

Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling The American Church, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape," May 12, 2015, www.pewforum.org.



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