As we begin the new year, most churches are entering Annual Meeting season. Budgets will be proposed and approved. Reports on how the past year’s ministry has gone will be presented. Plans for the year will be laid out.
For a lot of church people, annual meetings are a necessary evil. Boring meetings about boring things. But annual meetings have a significant effect on ministry. If you really want to know what a congregation values, look at the budget. If you want to know what a denomination focuses on, look at the budget.
Churches might put things like “All are Welcome” on signs, but have nothing in the budget for hospitality ministry.
Churches might have mission statements about growing in faith or serving the poor, but have no budget lines for educational resources or funds directed to outreach.
While what churches have failed to budget for or invest in is interesting, what they do put their time, energy and money towards is even more interesting. And so often churches invest in things that simply make no sense and make one wonder what is actually trying to be accomplished. In fact, churches often invest in or put their resources into ventures that have little chance of yielding fruit.
Let me explain with some examples:
Lutherans in Canada have been primarily rural during our history. Most of our congregations are in rural communities. This made sense as it has been only in the past decade or so that the shift in Canadian society has been from a majority rural to majority urban population.
Generally urban congregations tend to be larger with more resources. Rural congregations tend to be smaller with fewer resources. So seeing struggling rural congregations, church leadership tends to invest in places where the church is struggling. Our seminary has developed an entire institute devoted to rural ministry offering a Doctor of Ministry degree in rural ministry. Multi-point and regional parish ministry is being explored and developed to help a few pastors serve many congregations in a team setting. Rural congregations are often given travel subsidies for church events. Skype and other video conferencing technology is being used to include rural folk.
This is all good and rural congregations deserve good ministry.
Yet, all our efforts are fighting against the demographic realities of shrinking rural communities. There are fewer and fewer people to minister to in rural contexts. We are putting disproportionate resources towards smaller groups of people.
At the same time, because urban congregations are perceived as large and self-sufficient, we leave them be. Yet, they are shrinking too and it is not related to demographics. In fact, there are more people than ever who have no church affiliation living down the street, within blocks, driving by urban churches every day. Shrinking urban churches are the result of changing culture, mission-drift, a lack of evangelism and failed education systems in churches.
Yet, there is little energy, time, resources or even concern going into helping urban churches understand the people that live next door to them.
Many urban churches are now at a place where they simply cannot communicate or connect with 21st century culture. This isn’t about phones and projector screens in church, but about understanding that most people 70 and under engage community differently – through smart phones and social media. People understand their real life world through an online lens, from scheduling birthday parties, to finding restaurants to eat at, to getting their news, to listening to music or watching TV etc…
And another example:
Churches will bend over backwards to keep nearly comatose Sunday School programs alive. They will long for the youth to come and “get involved.” They want young adults to “come back” to church in order to get take up the jobs that older people want to give up. Precious volunteer energy and resources are spent on doomed to disappoint ministries. Yet, the things that they are asking of kids (to attend regular faith education programs) and youth (to fill most leadership roles in worship), adults are mostly unwilling to do themselves. They expect young people to want to do things that older people want to stop doing… it makes no sense.
But perhaps more importantly, we have hit another demographic tipping point where there are more over 50-year-olds in Canada than under 50-year-olds. That means at best, a church can hope for 1 family of 4 for every 2 empty nest couples in church. If you have 30 couples over 50 in church, you will only have about 15 families. Of course it will seem like the young people aren’t around… but that is because they don’t exist.
Churches long for young adults and young families thinking that they will have the time, energy and money to keep congregations going. Yet increasingly, young adults and young families are under-employed, highly indebted people with precious discretionary time on their hands and who are trying to make it through a high cost time of their lives.
Yet the Baby Boomers, the richest generation in history, are reaching the end of their careers. The largest group of retired people ever is about to have loads of time and money on their hands. Why don’t we have Sunday School for them? Retiree workers instead of youth workers? Why don’t we want 65-year-olds putting on an alb and lighting the candles in worship?
Many churches spend a lot of angst on young people, who (demographically speaking) don’t even exist. But the people who do exist, a glut of boomers, are largely ignored.
Why do congregations, church bodies and leaders so often see their hope and future in unrealistic visions of church? Why do we invest in ministries and activities that have little chance of yielding fruit for us?
I don’t know if there is one answer. I think it has to do with fear of disappointing those led us into faith in the first place by doing things differently than they did. It has to do with longing for a return to the glory days of the past. It has to do with a fear of change, and our world is full of change these days.
Now, I wish this was the part of the blog post where I explained the magic bullet to turning this poor investment strategy, this poor ministry culture around. But I don’t know the answer.
Well, let me rephrase. I do know the answer… and so do you.
But the answer is hard work.
Churches need to look around ask what faithful ministry looks like in their context. Find out who our neighbours are. Find out what the needs of our communities are. Ask what opportunities is God putting before us. Discern who God is calling us to serve. Be willing to let go our expectations and vision for ourselves, and ask who God is calling us to be.
Strive to be faithful in our investments and ministry planning rather than successful.
This Annual Meeting season instead of seeing long boring meetings about boring reports and boring talks, consider it an opportunity to discover where God is leading our congregations and communities.
Who knew Annual Meetings could be that?
What does your church invest in? How can you see where your priorities are? Do you love Annual Meetings? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik