a rant by a runt about the american church, part 7

important preliminary comments here (part 1)
our american identity here (part 2)
my framing theological assumption here (part 3)
the unfortunate results of being reactors here (part 4)
the unfortunate results of being simplifiers here (part 5)
the unfortunate results of being systemitizers here (part 6)

since we’re highly individualistic, with VERY little sense of inter-relationships…

we’ve fueled the explosion of the autonomous church. i attend an autonomous church. it has no affiliation to any other church, anywhere. now, i’m not saying this is evil. i think much of denominationalism is ridiculous (and i can’t have it both ways). and the last church i worked in had a denominational affiliation that meant absolutely nothing — we never met with other churches in that denomination: it was only a name on the sign. but — all that said — there has been a massive boon of autonomous churches in america.

after all, we’re reactors — so many churches are started by identifying what they don’t want to be (and that often includes the denomination they were). we hate moorings and, even more, we hate accountability. so, since it’s now socially acceptable in american-church-world to be a part of a church (as a pastor or parishoner) with no affiliation, it’s a more and more attractive option.

look in the yellow pages at churches. they’re listed by denomination, under the general heading of ‘churches’. what’s the largest section in your yellow pages? in MOST, it’s ‘non-denominational’. this would have never have been true twenty years ago. funny aside: the fast growing church section in most yellow pages — quickly threatening to overtake the non-denominational category — is the reasonably new category: inter-demoninational. this is basically symantics. the inter-denominational churches are just saying, “hey, we’re happy to take transfer-growth from any other church in town.”

i have to say, something does seem to be lost (something good?) if we become a nation of disconnected churches, all as autonomous as the inconic american cowboy.

“church-shopping” is commonly understood. remember, i originally developed this seminar for greenbelt, a festival in the UK. and i presented it at our youth workers convention in argentina also. in both of these contexts, when i used the term “church shopping”, i was met with a room rull of blank stares. i explained the concept, and that a good (majority?) percentage of pop-culture church attendees would be familiar with the concept. and — seriously — the response in both seminars was a collective audible gasp!

i worked for a bit in a church in “the OC” (orange county, california — just south of LA). orange county is a unique little place in america — kind of a place where all the americanisms i’ve identified are on steroids. it’s a conservative and wealthy pocket in an otherwise fairly liberal state. you can’t spit without hitting a mega-church. churches over 1000 in attendance are everywhere. but people move between these churches with a constant fluidity. i know many people who regularly attend multiple churches, picking and choosing the pieces of each church that best satisfy particular desires.

now, certainly, this is very connected to consumerism (which is an identity piece i haven’t talked about — partially because it seems less distinctly american). but i think it’s also connected to our american commitment to individualism. if my primary concern, as a church attendee, is what the church can provide for me, then why wouldn’t i simply select the church that — at any given moment — provides the best menu of satisfaction for my individual tastes and desires?

we’ve lost almost all sense of an intergenerational church, and ‘do church’ primarily in age-group ghettos. let me say this right off the bat — because i know many readers will already be thinking this: youth specialties has been part of this problem. remember — i’m pointing my finger at myself as much or more than at anyone else in this rant.

my own church as an example: i volunteer in the middle school ministry of my church. our middle school students — who are often introduced to church for the first time by parents who have just come to christ (or come back to christ) and start bringing their kids to church — come on sunday mornings to our middle school group, which meets at the same times as the regular services of the church. and we have a mid-week small group ministry also, which is exclusively middle-schoolers. the result is that the only contact our middle school students have with adults in our church is with those of us who work with them in the context of the middle school ministry.

i believe — strongly — that age-appropriate ministry is still important. and there are things — for example — that we can accomplish in our middle school ministry that are very important for the spiritual development of these kids. but we’re missing something; they’re missing something. and it shouldn’t be shocking to us that many of our youth group regulars in america have a VERY hard time transitioning to being part of the church as adults. this forces many of our churches to create new age-group ghettos for young adults, perpetuating the system.

next up: since we’re over-staters… (part 8)

16 thoughts on “a rant by a runt about the american church, part 7”

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  2. When I heard you at Nashville, I remember thinking “Who wouldn’t know what church shopping is?” I suppose I’m just young, but I don’t remember it not being that way.

  3. We have an age gap in our church from early college to retired age. We have a few people in between (primarily parents of our teens) and that is it.

    Our teens don’t want to be a part of the larger church as a whole because of it’s focus on the older in our congregation.

    I sure hope you make a post to address some of these issues with solutions :) I agree whole heartily with the need on church integration. The church is a whole body- interconnected. However, most churches today look more like a dismembered spread out body (can’t have a live body with your head separated from the heart).

  4. We have tried to break some of these barriers with multi-generational small groups at our church. It sounds great on paper, but the problem was that the older people were annoyed with younger families with kids and there has been a bunch of headaches. I wish I could tell a better story and maybe other churches will have success. This probably stems from our faults as Americans and our individualism, but what can I do??!!!!

  5. Marko, you are right on about the church needing to integrate generations. I am a third year youth director with a background in Christian classroom education. I used to teach kids in Christian schools and was always asking, “Why doesn’t this work?” There essentially was no difference betweeen the actions of the Christian school kids and the public school kids. When I came on staff at my church, I started doing all kinds of reading trying to find out what actually DOES work. What does it take to grow a committed Christian kid whose walk demonstrates the talk? While I agree that there is a place for age-based church groups for youth, what actually works is strong relationships between youth and mature Christian adults. I’m doing everything I can at my church to get adults into kids’ lives. I’ve read it may take as many as six mature Christians in a kid’s life, so someday I’m going to write a book called, “Every Kid Needs a Six Pack.” The Dewey system of education, which both our public schools and church education systems are based on, may get kids ready for the work force but has done a tremendous disservice to the Body of Christ. It’s time to think theologically about what we “do” with our children. I hope YS can be a leader in this, because I see little chance that any other major interdenominational publishing company is going to be looking at that any time soon. More power to ya!

  6. i have to comment because i actually see the age ghetto happening in reverse at an aging lutheran church.
    during the period that we had no youth director at St. Luke’s, the youth, at least, all but 4 or so, would go elsewhere for service. this meant that there was no children’s sermon many, many sundays and there was nothing but blue hair as far as the eye could see in the pews.
    i think the elderly are the demographic most neglected in all this… they absolutely have a desire to see youth involved in church, knowing that their generation will not be the last to worship God and, maybe more importantly (to them), knowing that they’re important to the youth of the church and that they’ll be remembered when they die. the message that gets sent when youth leave denominational or traditional churches is, “we don’t care about you or this congregation enough to stay here… you’re all old and – [wait for it] – irrelevant,” and you might say, “that’s not the message that it sends,” but i’m at a church where it happens and i can say that it definitely IS the message that’s sent.
    the church flavor-of-the-month club is destroying traditional services with good intentions (ref: inter-denominational). i go to flood at nite’s to get my fill of contemporary worship and go to St. Luke’s in the morning to remember i’m not the first generation to worship Jesus.
    i didn’t mean to make such a long post but i think there is a huge age-ghetto left out of what’s printed above… and i know it’s written for youth workers… but they should also care about elderly age-ghettos and shouldn’t withhold their youth (directed youth and personal youthfulness) from them.
    *exhale*
    all this to say i totally agree with everything you wrote!

    heart,
    andy

  7. at this point in my life, i’d take autonomy and individualism any day over the what has been true of church and denominations for the past mellinian. reactionary yes…but maybe healthy. and i think church shopping is more than a reflection of our consumeristic nature. i think it’s a reflection of our deeper desire (just as i would say consumerism is). we have a deep desire for a church that would live out who jesus is and we do not see it. so we keep hopping and hopeing for it in the next family. i would imagine that the people in europe don’t stuggle with this as to the fact that they just simply stop going to church and shut down their deeper desires. i think church shopping speaks to the hope that the young people hold onto. i also think that churches becoming autonomus is a false covering for wanting the freedom to make thier own choices but not being able to totally embrace thier freedom. most churches who are offshuts are extremely similar to those they left. it’s like having teenagers who want freedom and yet don’t know what to do with it. but like your children you want them to grow up and gain independance; to have their own families and thier own traditions and their own beliefs. maybe our churches should be functioning the same way. maybe it isn’t so bad for them to be healthily autonomous. maybe that creates potential for renewal and change.

  8. have you ever read “A Peculiar People” by Rodney Clapp?? This book is definitly along the lines of what you are talking about… you should check it out…

    Also, John Westerhoff came to ming when you were talking about seperating students into “age group ghettos”… he talked about this stuff in the 70’s…

  9. Ever heard of multi-churching? I’ve got a book by Matthew Paul Turner that advocates it (“5 benefits of multichurching”) – says that it’s better to take snippets from many different congregations. I can appreciate that perspective as an attempt to get all our needs met, to be more well-rounded than our denominations would have us be. Sounds good, sounds healthy, but I think it might be an instance of forsaking the best for the good. It remains unhealthily individualistic; it leaves out the concept of community altogether. Turner tries to confront this when he says that the “best thing” about multichurching is that it helps build community. Well, no…it helps build a large network of acquantances. Not entirely the same thing. And yes, it remains ultra-consumeristic. Let’s go to the place that serves us the best-tasting Christianity without us having to make a commitment or invest in that group. That’s only a shadow of the church. Let’s face it…there are good things about consumerism (or we wouldn’t be pathological consumers). It gives us instant gratification. It makes things nicely packaged and convenient. But like nicely packaged, convenient food, nicely packaged convenient churches may not be the healthiest choice.

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