A quarter century ago, as a local church leader in my 20s, I was already forced to rethink the ministry paradigm that worked in my childhood. I would attend workshops offered by the national church, the conference, the teaching church or the independent writer/gurus - and the question was always very simple: "What will it take to make church - as we know it - attractive to and effective with baby boomers?"
In the mid 1980s we all awoke one day to the reality that the boomer generation had wobbled a bit in their commitment to the institutional, denominational church. All parties responded with a massive and sustained campaign of what we might call Ministry Tweaking. In the next years, hundreds of books, seminars and workshops taught us: Tweak a little here and a little there, and the boomers could be reached! And so we tweaked.
- We tweaked the fine art of worship visitor follow-up, including the art of the doorstep visit with the cheesy church souvenir-gift in hand.
- We tweaked the order of worship - to make it more user-friendly.
- We tweaked the music - thousands of American churches added a "contemporary service" in the late 1990s - and those that did this well did indeed reach a boatload of boomers.
- We tweaked the nature of spiritual formation, moving away from an educational model of standardized institutional curriculum and more toward customized classes and groups.
- We tweaked the way that we mobilized people to support the church financially - with Herb Miller's Consecration Sunday protocols representing our best collective wisdom on how to pry open a boomer's heart and pocketbook. We largely mastered this one - and the boomers ended up a very generous generation with respect to their churches.
The boomers are now almost ancient. We are now the establishment. We now run the churches that tweaked and tweaked to keep us. And as we retire, we still do church on our terms, and on our schedule, typically two Sundays a month. We are not as brand-loyal as our parents, and our churches will have to keep tweaking until we die, if they intend to hold onto us.
But a generation came along behind us that challenged us with some much harder tweaks if we were to keep them connected to the church. So we tweaked harder, and with less results. If we managed to hold onto half the boomers that grew up in our churches, we probably held on to only twenty percent of the Gen X-ers that came through our Sunday schools.
And then the generation behind them arrived... a wave of incredibly diverse persons, united only in a few respects - one of which that they are almost universally disengaging with the whole idea of organized religion. Except where it is entirely reinvented for their generation, by leaders who are 30 years old. And the old forms of gathering, of worshiping, of studying, or organizing, of serving - church as we have known it - no manner of tweaking is likely to save it.
Ever heard of a phenomenon called denial? From the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s, denial kept many churches from making the shifts that could have helped them retain and attract the boomer generation. By 1986, we were playing catch up, and losing members steadily. We never really caught up. But our denial finally gave way to the Tweaking Era. And now in 2012, Tweaking is more than a cottage industry. Its what we do.
This is one reason why I feel that the United Methodist Call to Action is coming about 20 years too late! It is a Call to Tweak big time! Get all systems working again! We so needed that call in 1992!
But most of our churches need more than a tweak, even a big tweak. We need major intervention. I love the work that Bob Farr and friends have done with the Healthy Church Initiative. The HCI process goes beyond tweaking. It is a full-blown systems intervention - with a philosophy and approach similar to what I follow in my own local church consulting and coaching. Churches that intend to stay in the game in the next quarter century will have to re-think everything they do - everything! They can tweak some things, but the churches that live to the year 2030 will start over again in many respects- they will plant new ministries and new faith communities within themselves and beyond - and with a revolutionary spirit.
Our culture is undergoing revolutionary transformation. In some ways, we are paralleling similar transformations that occurred in Canada and Europe fifty or sixty years ago. American churches that are ready to move from Tweak to Revolution are going to enjoy a rich future of ministry. But short of Revolution, denominational Protestant religion in America is about to run out of tweaks.