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Young clergy reflect on changing church landscape

Young clergy reflect on changing church landscape

Church Vitality

They had other plans—careers in the courtroom, in the theater, in business—anywhere but in the pulpit. Yet, here they are: young clergy in Florida United Methodist churches. And all of them are a little amazed, but never more certain that it’s where they are supposed to be.

One thing they are certain about is that the church they will lead in the coming decades will look nothing like the church they grew up in.

Rev. Mike Luzinski, 27, has watched a new neighborhood emerge in the area his church serves. "We've got to be adapting to the changing needs of our communities," he said.

Ministry might not happen in a church at all.

“The franchising model is going away,” said Rev. Mike Luzinksi. “It’s context-specific ministries that are going to thrive in the future.”

Luzinski, 27, sees changes happening all around Asbury United Methodist Church in Maitland, where he is associate pastor. Apartments, shops and restaurants are going up in a city block near the church. As he watches the new neighborhood emerge, he keeps asking himself: How can we be the church for that community?

“I know it’s going to be different than the way we’re church for the wealthy neighborhood around the nice lake,” he said. “It’s exciting and scary. Change is tough, and we recognize the world is changing. For the church to fulfill its mission, we’ve got to be adapting to the changing needs of our communities.”

And that could mean Sunday school over brunch and mimosas, a Bible study while out kayaking or a worship service before a cookout.

“The institutional church may be dying but the church isn’t dying. It can’t die,” said Rev. Emily Edwards, 31, pastor at First United Methodist, Orlando. “What surprises me the most is how much the Church really, really has to get this, right now.”

Edwards said the church needs to consolidate its resources, use all its properties and assets and pour them into new ways for people to understand what it means to be the Church, like Fresh Expressions.

“We’ve got to find that happy place where our structure isn’t hindering us from adapting in a world that doesn’t move at the same pace it did when the church was thriving,” Edwards said. “We knew it was coming, but the surprise is that it has arrived.”

It’s going to mean engaging with people who want nothing to do with the Church because they see it as irrelevant or hostile.

Rev. Rachel DeLaune, 31, associate pastor at First United Methodist in Boca Raton, got a taste of that waitressing in Atlanta while her husband, Ryan, finished up at Candler School of Theology.

“I was the only follower of Jesus on the staff,” DeLaune said. “So, for six months, I listened to my co-workers express their anger toward the Church and Christians, their feelings of betrayal, judgment and hypocrisy. A lot of it was justified.”

But the experience helped shape her idea of what her ministry should look like.

“I want to represent for people the real Jesus, not the one who’s been misconstrued or abused or misused, not the patriotic Jesus or the prosperity Jesus, not the precious and sweet Jesus. But the Jesus who loves the lepers and says nasty things to the religious elite,” DeLaune said. “That’s who I want to represent and to engage in conversation with outsiders and try as much as I can to get out of the Church bubble.”

Edwards found herself outside the bubble when she was awakened the night of June 12, 2016, by the sound of police helicopters. They were converging on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando where a lone terrorist sympathizer held police at bay for three hours. When it was over 49 people, mostly gay Latinos, were dead.

Rev. Rachel DeLaune, 31, shown walking the beach with her young daughter, formed the basis of her ministry while working as a waitress in Atlanta.

Most people who were affected by the Pulse nightclub shooting describe it as traumatic and terrifying. Edwards, who had just celebrated her first year in the ministry, calls it transformative.

“When you are confronted with something like that, you have the opportunity to face it with love or with hate,” Edwards said. “The congregation responded with love. You don’t prepare for that. You remember the promise that God is present, no matter what, and you put one foot in front of the other, no matter what. 

“We saw how this community and our church, in the face of darkness and hate, gave gospel witness to hope and light. It was very transformative,” Edwards said. “It confirmed our particular identity as First Orlando. Are we changed? Yes! But we’ve seen a lot of people who felt exiled by the church beginning to see who we are as a community of God’s people.”

Rev. Emily Knight, 31, pastor of Riverside Park United Methodist in Jacksonville, thinks the problem is “we have gotten our Jesus confused with our rituals.

“A lot of people think that to be a faithful Christian, you need to go to Sunday school and church on Sundays and give money. That’s what makes you a faithful church member, but it doesn’t make you a disciple,” Knight said.

There’s a woman in her church who is a faithful member and can be counted on to do whatever needs to be done, Knight said. But at a recent meeting, she said that she now realizes she’s been serving the church but she’s not sure she’s been serving Jesus.

“We have forgotten it’s our job to relate to the world. We think if we build it they will come. But we need to wake up. We need to learn to love the broken and love the brokenness in ourselves,” Knight said.

One of the biggest challenges is trying to connect people from different generations, walks of life, political perspectives and religious outlooks.

DeLaune said she sees herself as a bridge between the older traditional members and the younger members who are eager to take the church in new directions. Both groups need to feel valued and connected.

“I get really excited about Fresh Expressions. I see a future in that,” DeLaune said. “The universal Church has to look different. There won’t be a church if we don’t change. But my heart breaks because I grew up in a traditional setting. I’m a traditionalist at heart. I love the theology of the hymns. We can’t leave the traditionalists behind. We have to love them through it.”

Rev. Emily Sterling, 31, associate pastor at Trinity United Methodist, Palm Beach Gardens, said she thinks letting people tell their stories and listening to them is an important part of meeting the challenge.

“When we encounter those folks who are done with church, we need to hear what happened. Maybe something painful happened in the congregation. We need to acknowledge that the church isn’t always a safe place,” Sterling said.

And for the “nones” who have no experience of church, Sterling said reaching out to them outside church walls is crucial.

“If you never went to church, why would you go? Even if it’s a more contemporary service, why would you go? It’s important to create space for conversation. To be able to say, ‘my story connects with your story and here’s why.’”

--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.

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