I just finished a week-long road trip across Kansas and Nebraska visiting Methodist pastors that I am coaching. These pastors are a sharp bunch. Their churches are faring better than one would expect in 2022. Here is a bit of what I saw:
• One church dominated life in its community a half century ago, spending $13 million in current dollars to build a state of the art new facility in 1970. They have now shrunk by 80 percent. Church leaders are elderly. Those leaders’ children (if they attend church at all) have moved away to brighter lights or mostly go to the Evangelical Free Church across town.
• Another church was seeing an uptick in participation before March 2020. But the church’s insistence on masks in worship as they re-gathered led about one third of its people to leave in the following two years.
• Sunday morning attendance within the younger families demographic has been decimated in many places. This moves churches into the ranks of the UCC, the Presbyterians and Disciples, which, having lost viable children’s ministries in most places, are now drying up on the Great Plains.
• Two relatively new churches, each planted since 2010, had stalled out with about fifty worshippers, teetering on the edge of financial viability, even with an extremely attractive meeting space and very gifted pastors.
• Another pastor debriefed his bishop’s choice to close his church plant a few years back when they also had about fifty worshipers.
• One church was planting new ‘fresh expressions’ fellowships all about town – creating a spiritual village that greatly stretched the social bandwidth beyond the folks who show up in the church house on Sunday.
• Two small-town churches were measurably stronger and slightly larger now than before the pandemic due to very bold initiatives in community youth and children’s ministry.
• Every church I visited is seeking to offer a digital presence for members and others who chose not to attend services in person.
What does a good future look like for mainline ministry in America’s heartland?
• A radical reconnecting with community people, community projects and community issues is essential. Churches are rooted in living communities –yet most mainline churches are estranged from their communities. For pastors, the ability to network among community leaders and influencers is as important as the ability to preach.
• Compelling age-level ministries is key to church survival in most cases. We would advise most heartland churches go to any length to get back in relationship with local, younger families. Retaining a multi-generational vibe will keep many mainline churches as a distinctive option for families.
• Starting a contemporary service with a band designed to mirror the innovations of the 1990s or the nearby evangelical big box church is not a viable way forward in most cases. It is a different age, and it’s hard to compete with much younger and much bigger churches in worship entertainment. Relevant biblical preaching remains critical, regardless of music.
• In the years ahead, a significant percentage of folks will gather at times other than Sunday morning, in ways that are decidedly less formal and more intimate and interactive. We will see fewer people per gathering than in days past. Current sanctuaries will be too big to be useful in many cases. Doubling down on Sunday morning may not be wise.
• Discipleship is first and foremost about helping folks learn to pattern their lives in ways that bless them and bless others. I say to all: Seek first the Kingdom of God (not growing church membership), and the membership will likely grow.
• Our financial paradigm of funding a full-time pastor and maintaining a historic building is collapsing. If we want to keep our buildings, they must be creatively leveraged to produce ancillary income and to gather community all week long.
• Regional online churches and networks with an active physical presence in county seat towns, perhaps spread across twenty counties – this is an idea whose time has come. The physical gatherings may use large screen video preaching. Or they may form a network of micro-churches. This interplay between strong local faith communities and a larger movement opens up all sorts of possibilities. (That was the methodology of my ancestor Joseph Willis, one of the first circuit riders west of the Mississippi 225 years ago!) Even if we can only gather a few here or there, we can do regional high-energy events monthly that involve scores of folks, thereby giving life to the whole system.
• Finally, the theological future is varied for these churches.
Some will need to continue to hug the Methodist middle way, and to create loving zones that bridge over the acrimony of the culture wars – even as they discipline themselves to down-play issues that are REALLY important to some of their members. To keep the peace.
Others will choose to leave the denomination in order to stay rooted in the sensibilities of their communities with regard to the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. These churches, in choosing this path, will risk alienating those few college-educated younger adults that remain in their midst or whom are prospects for their future.
Still other churches in these will take a markedly more progressive path – and offer clear and compelling alternatives to theological and cultural fundamentalism.
• In every case, pastoral leadership is a huge issue! There will be more partnerships between congregations in order to cover the costs of ordained clergy. This has been happening in Britain for two generations, and has not yielded a vital church. There will be more lay ministers, with weak theological education, and perhaps greater chances of getting carried off in the flavor of the month, politically or culturally. There could also be a rise in bi-vocational pastors, who have some theological education but also can lean upon other sources of income.
I talked to a UMC district superintendent who will lose half or more of his churches to denominational disaffiliation in the next year or so. He remained energized and hopeful about the possibilities of leading to create the next iteration of vital faith communities in rural America. I salute his energy and the energy of each pastor I have worked with this month. They are my heroes!