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Being a Church Isn’t What it Used to Be

What does a successful church look like in the 21st Century? What’s the “magic formula”, the recipe, the design?
Once upon a time, we knew what churches were supposed to do and how they operated. Worship was Sunday morning at 11 (and perhaps 9 if there were two); Sunday School was provided during that time; there was a choir; and the minister preached, from the pulpit, for 22 minutes. The Official Board managed the business, money, and building. Ministers were focussed on spiritual matters, preparing worship and visiting. They ran Bible Studies which people may or may not have attended but all agreed ought to be offered. … Well, you can add your own criteria.
The world that church was part of is no longer. And we can’t just blame Sunday hockey – or whatever other sport you’d like to pick on.– or Sunday shopping. Those are consequences, not causes, of the changes. If we continue to act as though the world is still as it was, it will pass us by. Nor is it enough to have PowerPoint (which we do) or a band (which we don’t right now). The Church needs to make substantive changes which respond to current realities.
What are some of those? One is that very few people have “spare” time anymore. Parents of school-age children prioritize, usually with family time (aka kid running) coming first when parents aren’t at work. Retirees are attending lectures, volunteering, going to the gym, and travelling. No one I know is patient, in the way we once were, with sitting through a boring meeting or church service. We expect quality. We require that our time be respected. We want to be engaged, to contribute, to make a difference. Passivity is passé.
Much of the way we run things at Forest Hill is still pretty old-school. That may be comforting for some but it’s disengaging for others – some of whom are still hanging in because they love the people and place, even while they wish for worship with more energy and involvement, fewer meetings that are shorter, more engaging and even fun, and more events that feed their souls as well as their stomachs.
There is no “one size fits all” answer to how to do church anymore. But there are some clues. Growing churches are engaged in their communities, respond to needs there, offer multiple entry opportunities (not just Sunday morning), provide a variety of lay-led small groups at a variety of times and places, and are managed by staff, freeing congregants to use their precious time for faith development and specific mission and outreach projects.
Think about the ways your life outside of the church has changed in the past 20 or 40 years. How do we reconfigure our congregation so it brings the best of those changes into our congregational life? That’s the challenge and excitement of church in the 21st century.


This article was inspired by “What to Do When Nothing Works Anymore”, by Sarai Rice of Congregational Consulting Group