STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Let me begin by saying that nothing you’re going to read in this piece is terribly radical. However, it will feel radical for almost all of us reading articles in an online Christian publication because the most radical thing most of us have done over the holidays has been to shop for waffle irons at nontraditional times as a way of kicking off our celebration of the birth of Jesus. However, if for some reason you’re reading this and you’ve most recently found yourself traveling hundreds of miles on foot (with your children in tow) through harsh terrain and despotically controlled territories to flee violence and unrest in your originating zip code, only to be greeted with a red, white, and blue tear gas welcome party — then the things I’m going to say and suggest will likely come across as a bit tone deaf, especially considering I’m a person who spends most weekends professing tepid allegiance to a man who (following his miraculous birth) fled violence and unrest in his home country for religious reasons.
So, with that out of the way, your ethnically homogenous middle class church (and its budget, building, and membership) is probably shrinking not because your local megachurch just opened a third location in the old CVS across the street from you, but thanks almost entirely to the fact that the Middle Class in America is shrinking. Your church’s formational activities, its “mission” work, its schedule, its business meetings, its worship style (or lack thereof), and even the delineations in pay it makes between clergy and support staffs (or even between “senior” clergy and associate clergy), all work in concert to form your congregation into what it means to be a member of the social class that dominates the demographics of your faith community, and not in what it means to be a participant in a countercultural revolution bringing heaven to earth.
For instance, many young working class Americans don’t have Sundays off. I’m going to say it louder for those of you whose sanctuary sound systems are ailing: A LARGE NUMBER OF YOUNG AMERICANS DON’T HAVE SUNDAYS OFF BECAUSE THEY WORK RETAIL. Also, many young working class Americans don’t have evenings off, and if they do, they don’t have childcare because their partners are also working.
Most “young families” (the veritable catnip for aging congregations nervous about making it) don’t have enough disposable income (or vacation time) to take an eight-day international mission excursion for the low, low price of $4000 a head, let alone volunteer to cover the hot dog expenses for your annual post-VBS cookout.
In the midst of your church wide “revisioning,” “relauching,” “rebranding,” and “reimagining” projects you are likely undertaking due to falling budget and attendance numbers, I might suggest an alternative to the tried and true model of shaming older millennials (those in their early-to-mid-thirties) and the generations ambling along behind them for their “selfishness,” “lack of priorities,” or for “constantly staring at their phones and forcing their kids to play travel soccer.
Instead, a more helpful approach might involve looking at the larger data sets reminding us that most young Americans enter the workforce better educated and more indebted than any generation in history, and thanks to wage stagnation, a lack of occupational stability, and a constantly inflating standard of living, an indebtedness that keeps them as the first generation since the Great Depression to do worse financially than their parents and grandparents.
The reason many young people are delaying marriage and having fewer children isn’t just because they’re playing Fortnite in the basement, it’s because they still have roommates, lack trustworthy health insurance, and work two jobs in the “gig-economy.”
So, where am I going with all of this?
What if instead of competing with area churches for the few remaining members of a greatly diminished social class who can truly “appreciate” and “support” what your church has “to offer” (think how utterly ridiculous it is to conceive of Christianity as some sort of self-help subscription service), your faith community decided to create worship opportunities at nontraditional times for people who work nontraditional hours?
What if your congregation pooled its resources not to re-roof the Christian Education annex, but to get community members out of crippling student loan and credit card debt?
What if your congregation worked to foster organizational opportunities for people of differing social classes and generations to build actual relationships and understanding rather than siloing them in different worship styles, “Sunday school” classrooms, and once-a-year backpack distribution lines?
What if your congregation started encouraging its participants to upend and delegitimize the rules of our consumeristic market economy by simply paying its support staff a living wage, working to decrease widespread income inequality between senior and associate level staff members, and modeling for a weary and broken American moral compass what it looks like to believe that a budget is an unshaking moral pronouncement of one’s values rather than the determiner of what values one can afford to hold from year to year?
What if your church actually practiced the teachings of Jesus together, even if those teachings came in direct contrast to the teachings of what it means to be happy, healthy, and wealthy in a version of America that no longer exists?
At the least, what if your church stopped believing that the meaning of Christmas is best communicated by giving people (both here and abroad) boatloads of consumer products they neither need nor still appreciate by the middle of January?
What would the world, or our country, or our cities, or our neighborhoods look like if, when people of meager means saw your building they didn’t see a poverty-shaming handout delivery system, an impenetrable stained glass fortress, or a place where rich white people pass the time thanking the divine for not making them poor, or a Republican, or a Democrat, or closed minded, or progressive, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Baptist, or Evangelical, or a grocery store clerk with only Tuesdays off?
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” — Jesus of Nazareth
See what I mean about being radical? Honestly, it’s like trying to convert to a different religion, which I suppose was kind of his point.