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From Maintenance to Mission

February 18, 2011

Over the past year I have been a graduate student at the University of Minnesota studying leadership, change and culture.  Interacting with the amazingly diverse students there has been an eye-opener.  I’m pretty transparent about my priesthood in that context, and that has sparked some revealing conversations.

This is hardly a scientific sample, but these conversations have revealed that the institutional church is, for the most part, irrelevant to their view of the how to make the world a better place.  They have a strong sense of secular mission that significantly overlaps with the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission.  These young people passionately want:

  • To respond to human need by loving service.
  • To seek to transform the unjust structures of society.
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

And they are amazed to learn that the church—at least The Episcopal Church—has any interest in those things whatsoever.  Their notions of the institutional churches, largely formed by the electronic media, are that we are concerned only with ourselves, we fight amongst ourselves continually, we are oppressive and exclusive, we are old, and we have the values of another age (their grandparents’ era).

Another surprise was how they view those buildings we value so very highly.  I suggested that a small group of which I was a member meet in the lounge of a church building: it was convenient, centrally located and had good public transportation connections.  In a word, they refused to meet there.

When I probed I discovered that, to that group of young people, church buildings were “dark, scary, forbidding, oppressive, and unwelcoming.” (Among other things, they told me churches buildings were mazes where they got lost, they could never find a bathroom, and there would be no wireless connection. Fair enough.)  Most of them had only been to a church for a funeral.

And we wonder why we have such a hard time attracting young people?

The transition from “maintenance” to “mission” is huge for most of us; largely because we have been in maintenance mode for so long it has become the norm.  Transforming ourselves and our institutions to mission mode means we have to transform the normative culture of both ourselves and our institutions.  That takes time, and that takes focused work, and that means change.  Change is almost never easy or painless.

To be relevant in today’s culture, we need to raise the voice of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ above the voices who are speaking on our behalf.  Our image of advocacy for mission needs to outshine our image of irrelevance and in-fighting.

And we probably need better signs, better lighting and Wi-Fi zones in our churches.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. steven Charleston permalink
    February 22, 2011 5:48 pm

    Here is an interesting side bar to this story.

    Our cathedral just completed a very comprehensive survey of our congregation as part of our search process. Among those surveyed were a healthy number of “20-somethings”, an age group which we are blessed to have in our community. The results of our survey illustrated on fact about this demographic which our consultants confirmed as standard for every other community they work with: the younger age group does not see “church” with walls; they see it in terms of outreach.

    In other words, those men and women who do find their way into church in this age group (late 20’s-early 30’s) do not want to be defined by the structures or traditions or even culture of the historic church….they want to be identified as doing something in the world around them.

    I thought this small, but significant insight, might add to the thoughts already stirred by your own reflections, Scott, and help us to be more aware of the generation we seek to engage.

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