I long to be proven wrong

For the December newsletter article, please see my Dec. 12 entry.

This is something I posted in a Facebook comment that captures my understanding of how church giving in the future will play out, and some of the consequences. I’ve said this many times, but perhaps never so concisely.

“I think a lot of congregations in the future are going to need to make … decisions between buildings, staff, ministry. The old models of big giving and big churches are crumbling; they just aren’t the way our future will play out, I’m afraid. Boomers are retiring and going to fixed incomes. Gen Xers (my generation) don’t have the pockets and are still paying off student debt 10-15 years after graduation. Millennials have a different understanding of institutions, action, and philanthropy than the Boomers who currently support our churches. (Not wrong, just different.) Oh yes, and we’ve saddled millennials with six-figure debt coming right out of college, even more than Xers.”

Even churches that are able to “save” their buildings will need to make hard decisions about staffing levels and (more to my point) services. The staff at medium and large congregations not only provide professional ministry (pastoral care, worship services, prophetic voice in the community) but also services that are more general: answering phones, updating databases and calendars, coordinating pastoral care, leading committees, opening and locking doors, cutting lawns, even cleaning the church. The hard long-term decisions of our future will be: Can we transition from a comprehensive service-provider model to a volunteer staffed/professionally led organization? (such as most other non-profit volunteer organizations devoted to change); Can we shift from a spider web of often competing committee structures and political realities to a razor-sharp focus on the one or two things a church might be best to serve the world?; Can we let go of our expectations of perfection and let the church be the messy, imperfect, human and holy beautiful thing that it is in its most basic form?

I’m not ready, yet, to give up on our current model. I long to have the experts be proven wrong. But looking at the numbers, I see budget income lines dominated by a relatively small number of incredibly generous donors of the Baby Boom and Silent Generations. I see working families facing incredible tuition bills, from elementary school through college.  And I’ve looked at the future trends. Gen Xers are never going to have the capacity (in numbers or income) to replace the Boomers or Silent Gens. And Millennials, while considered another “Great Generation” by sociologists, are saddled by debt and tend to distribute their giving among a variety of organizations that support their values — not putting most in one church basket.

Ten years from now, what will our future church look like? I know the church and faith will prevail. History proves that. History also shows us that models for religious community shift over the decades, and our current model is rooted in the 19th century. What does the 21st century church look like?

I’m not trying to be a negative Nellie.
I just want to save the church.
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