It is a truism that we teach all of our kids in this popular Church nursery rhyme,
Here is the Church and
Here is the steeple.
Open it up, and
Here are all the…
People. Churches have people in them. Second only to steeples, churches are identified by the people inside of them. People gathered closely together dancing and wiggling around just like the children’s fingers do in the rhyme’s accompanying hand motions. This has always been a cute, and rather playful, way to talk about the Church with kids, but in recent history it’s becoming a little bit less playful. It seems to be naming an elephant in the room. The people, you see, are leaving. Churches still have people in them, to be sure, but it cannot be denied that numbers are significantly down, and what’s more, those that have left have a curious amount in common with each other. These are patterns and trends worth exploring, and with careful observation and an attentive ear, one might find that the Church today consists of an awful lot more than steeples and people.
When reflecting upon the increasingly empty state of our pews, an uneasy question begins to arise: “What went wrong?” It clearly is evident that something has gone wrong. When we compare our worship attendance today with the attendance twenty years ago, something is wrong. When we look specifically at our young, single adult demographics, something is wrong. Depending on who answers the question, what is both interesting and uncomfortable about it is the finger often points in different directions and we really are answering: Who went wrong? In other words, either the Church is wrong or those who left Her are wrong.
While it certainly is unproductive to turn this important issue into an exchange of blame, it is clear that there are varying opinions on what, or who, needs to change. It is time for a conversation to take place.
Creating a welcoming space for this conversation to happen is not a simple task. Single young adults, statistically, are not very likely to walk through the doors of a church to discuss the terms of their regular return to Sunday mornings. Thus far, the predominant voice of the Church does not seem to be open to any other arrangement than Sunday mornings. Granted, many churches do offer some valiant and creative attempts at offering the next “hip” event or gathering to lure young adults through their doors. No matter how cool or creative, approaches like these remain nothing more than watered-down colonization: forcing the expressions of one into the mold of another.
This is no longer an acceptable approach. At the least, this approach is no longer being accepted by most single, young adults.
Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of many of those leaving (or who have left) the church is an overwhelming desire for authenticity. This is evident in so many facets of this generation’s life: independent music with low production is on a rise, coffee shops and bars with exposed brick and industrial ceilings, the organic and local food movement, clothing styles, etc. Everywhere one looks today, there is a very visible return to and embrace of that which is simple and authentic. And, it appears, corporate spiritual expression is not exempt from this movement.
It is necessary, therefore, to continue this conversation in a way that invites and nurtures authenticity. An accessible conversation for all parties involved will nurture an environment that respects both the traditions of the Church and the character of this new generation.
The Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has created a space for this conversation to begin. Affiliated Missional Communities (AMCs) are a new development in our Synod, and they have been created to respond to any need that is not currently being met by existing structures and programs. While AMCs are a new concept, and the processes for their development are still being determined, this is a noteworthy and concrete step in the right direction.
Every faith community has a unique set of needs, and Affiliated Missional Communities are granted the autonomy to take whatever shape might best address those needs. Therefore, no two AMCs will be the same, and not all will address the issue of this article (the absence of young adults in our Sunday morning pews). The call to accompany young adults who have left our churches is actually the mission of one AMC in particular. Urban Acacia is the first AMC to be created and, therefore, its story is inherently part of the larger story of AMCs.
Born into this dual role as a young adult urban ministry and a “pilot” for this new model of Affiliated Missional Communities, Urban Acacia is charged with two visions. On the one hand, it must be faithful to the community in which it took root so that it may be an authentic expression of the people therein. On the other hand, it must carefully chart its progress and evolution as an AMC so that it may serve as a resource for other churches that might want to pursue an AMC in their contexts. Without a delicate balance of these two identities, it will either be an inauthentic ministry or a mere side conversation that fails to build into the larger picture of the Kingdom.
A description of the community in which it took root: Urban Acacia is called to accompany “those who exist in the cracks between churches.” This consists mainly of young professionals in the city, but also anyone else who might find their natural faith expression outside the brackets of institutional religiosity. To approach this eclectic group of people in an authentic and respectful way, the steps that have been taken are much like those that would be taken in a foreign country. Before conversation can take place, for example, it is necessary to learn the language of the people. Once the language is mastered, it is then necessary to identify local customs and values so that the outsider is mindful and respectful of them as relationships unfold. All of these conversations are milestones in accompaniment, and they are just as pertinent in navigating generational cultures, as they are in any other cultural context.
With this approach in mind, the next questions asked are: What does this generation value? Where do they meet? What do they do when they gather? How do they celebrate, and how do they mourn? After asking these questions, listening to the answers, and looking at research and statistics about this generation, four common values continue to reveal themselves: Conversation, Creativity, Activism and Spiritual Growth. In order to ensure that the ministry’s evolution stays faithful to the generation’s core values, Urban Acacia made them the four the pillars of its mission: weekly small groups for conversation; seasonal concerts and art sales; monthly and annual volunteer opportunities; and diverse opportunities for spiritual engagement around the city. Urban Acacia was designed after the culture it accompanies.
“But, what of the Gospel?!” some might say. “Shouldn’t all ministries of the Church build their foundation upon the Gospel, and not the characteristics of some nebulous secular crowd?” This is an important point, and a true one, but it is important to note that this approach is built on the Gospel. Jesus demonstrated time and time again the value of accompanying people in the vocabulary of their context. He invited fishermen to come and help “fish for men.” He spoke to farmers in language of seasons and soil. He spoke of plows and swords to an agrarian society. And, lest we forget, He was born a homeless human and died the death of a thief. To be faithful to the Gospel is to be faithful to both God and people; the two are not separate.
The introduction to the Lutheran Book of Worship Minister’s Desk Edition reminds us:
Corporate worship expresses the unity of the people of God and their continuity with Christians across the ages.… All that is edifying and authentic in the life of the Church of every time and every place is affirmed.
The reason the Church grew in the first place is because it was willing to learn the new language of the people; it was faithful to God and the people. As the introduction continues, early Christians “carried out the task of reforming the liturgy and returning it to the language of the people.” This is an extremely important process to carry out in the Church, and it must be done again and again over time to keep Her relevant and accessible to the masses. Otherwise, as mentioned earlier, the ministry will be either inauthentic, or short-lived and ineffective.
In order for us to walk together as a cohesive, authentic Church body into the years ahead, we must take care to become acquainted with the language of those around us. This includes, and even emphasizes those that exist outside our churches and existing programs. The expressions of God today are no more limited to the institutionalized brackets of any one tradition than God’s Word was limited 500 years ago to mere pages of Latin text. God was bigger then, and God is bigger now. The Church today is in need of translation just as urgently as it was back then, and the steps to make this happen are underway.
While the translations may be slow-going and rocky at first, change is always a challenge in the context of religious traditions. Change, however, is also the reason the Church still stands today. And, with God’s help, it will be the reason it still stands tomorrow.