A few weeks ago I contributed a post (“Rally day ruminations: the problem with Sunday School“), in which I suggested that the way many of us have approached Sunday School and the Christian formation of children and young people may be counter-productive. Not long after that piece ran, a friend of mine pointed me to a very interesting article by Alex Murashko of the Christian Post that made something of the same point in the context of what most of the churches I’ve served and attended have called “Youth Group.”
I didn’t mean to say that there aren’t and haven’t been (and won’t still be for years to come) great stories of faithful and fruitful Christian ministries centered on our Sunday Schools and Youth programs, and I was very pleased that my comments stirred up some very inspiring memories, such as Mark Michael’s “Mrs. Truax and the importance of Sunday School.”
Nonetheless, the direction of my thought — that the tendency over the past half century or so to develop specialized and professionalized approaches to Christian formation with children and young people points to a deeper challenge in contemporary church life — has, I think, broader implications.
When I was growing up in church in the 1950s and 1960s I would often hear about how our congregation was connected to the work of missionaries. Basically, the idea was that there were two kinds of places in the world: one, like ours, where most people were Christians, and the other, usually far away, where most people weren’t. The idea was that there were certain people from the “mostly Christian” places who were specially called, gifted, raised up for training, and then sent out to share the gospel with people who lived in the “mostly non-Christian” places. These were our missionaries, and it was the privilege and responsibility of our neighborhood church to sponsor them — to fund the work of the schools and training centers that would equip them for their ministry, to support them with financial contributions and prayers, to give them moral support by sending letters and expressing appreciation, and to host them with potluck suppers when they came “home” to visit.
The main work of our missionaries was, as trained and highly specialized professionals and volunteers, to build up the Church by proclaiming the gospel to people who weren’t (yet) Christians, usually in foreign lands and with all the challenges of different languages and cultures. They would do this by going to these strange places and finding opportunities to meet their non-Christian neighbors (perhaps by providing health care services, or education, or business opportunities), and then they began the long process of evangelization. It was our ministry, back home, to support them.
The work of building up the Church at home was quite different — though of course congregational vitality and growth were also of great importance. It was a priority first of all to shape and support our own children and youth as “young churchmen.” Generational continuity was of critical importance, and even if “our kids” might not actually take their places in the same pews that their parents and grandparents were occupying, then there would at least be a kind of reciprocal exchange across the denomination. Thus, the large investment in Sunday School wings, Directors of Religious Education, Youth Ministry Specialists, etc. Our kids might move to a new place and find a church there, while others who were raised somewhere else would find their way to us.
It might also happen that young Episcopalians would marry Presbyterians or Lutherans or even Roman Catholics. In those cases, we wanted to be sure that our church was attractive enough so that new, non-Episcopalian spouses would want to become Episcopalian in at least an equal proportion to those numbers of “ours” whom we might “lose” to a new wife or husband’s community and denomination of origin.
And finally, of course, there was the not-insignificant fact of mobility. People moved from one place to another for jobs or, perhaps, when they retired, and would need to find a new church — and some folks even when they remained in the same community would for some reason or another become dissatisfied with their churches and would go out to “shop” for a new church to join.
Our job, as we understood it implicitly, was to be a great church — to have excellent preaching and music and pastoral care, to offer strong Sunday School and Youth Group programs, interesting Adult Education offerings, meaningful outreach, and all the rest — so that when people who were looking for a church would come to our church they would discover that our church was the church they were looking for.
The ministry of our clergy and lay professionals was to make sure these “selling points” were in place, and the ministry of the members of the congregation was to support the enterprise financially, to participate in the programs provided, and, when they met someone who might be looking for a church, to invite him or her to visit, perhaps at Christmas or Easter, or perhaps on a “Bring a Friend to Church” Sunday.
Now, I’m not writing this piece to be especially critical of this model. In fact, it reflects in general outline the assumptions that have shaped my ministry and, I think, pretty much the ministry of the settled church in the places where I’ve lived for generations. What I would say instead is simply that the model is beginning to break down, not because there’s something terribly wrong with the model (though obviously there is more to be said about that), but because the context is changing. Consider, for example, the demographic observations of the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life.
If we base our efforts to sustain congregational vitality on the idea that “when people are looking for a church, they’ll visit us and find that we’re the church they were looking for,” we’re going to begin to have a problem. We are increasingly situated in communities where more and more people simply aren’t looking for a church.
In the piece I wrote a few weeks ago for Covenant I asked whether our parish Sunday Schools and Christian Education programs might usefully spend more time and energy supporting and encouraging parents in their primary, though perhaps increasingly neglected, role in the “evangelization” of their families. What I would suggest here is that we in our “domestic” congregations will need to think of ourselves now as “missionary training institutes” for a work of evangelization that needs to be happening in our own neighborhoods and communities, even as we continue to support those called to mission in the wider world. The need for this shift in orientation may seem self-evident, but I think we have very little idea how to accomplish it. The Fresh Expressions experiments in the Church of England and those proposed by writers like Dwight Zscheile and others in the “missional church” movement offer some intriguing discussion points. But, thus far anyway, they don’t seem to have had significant impact in the way most local congregations live and work. Certainly, the conversation needs to continue.
Bruce Robison’s other posts may be found here.