CORVALLIS, Ore. (RNS) I am in this lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.
It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.
It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”
I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.
Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.
Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.
That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.
Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.
But that contentment isn’t working. It isn’t working for members who want more than 60 minutes of worship and a few minutes of conversation. It isn’t working for children and parents, who want more than 1950s Sunday School redux. It isn’t working for leaders, who sense a weak follow-through.
It isn’t working for visitors, who enter in hope and leave in frustration over apparent shallowness. And it isn’t working for cities, suburbs and towns that have serious needs but aren’t getting sustained, life-transforming help from churches in addressing them.
Their contentment has come to seem fragile. ”We do good face,” says one leader here. But more and more members sense something is missing: conviction, perhaps, a sense that what they do here has meaning and purpose beyond institutional survival, a burning zeal to transform their own lives and to make a difference in the world.
They spend religion time inside a bubble. It is a wonderful bubble in many ways. But the world is so much larger, and the needs of their lives and of other lives so much deeper, than Sunday worship. A young father says he aches to talk with others about faith, but instead, people talk about church.
Rather than devote more years to addressing institutional issues, they need to move on to the deeper and more challenging issue of being a faith community in a troubled world. If all they do is rearrange the deck chairs one more time, they will die. And quite frankly, they will deserve it.
People are hungry for faith. They are hungry for conviction that isn’t mean-spirited and triumphalist. They are hungry for healthy families, healthy workplaces, healthy neighborhoods. They know that the darkness is fighting them tooth and nail.
They need transformation of life — not pleasant Sunday worship experiences — if they are to stand up to the darkness.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)