Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Future of Ministry

John the Evangelist had a revelation while serving a sentence of exile on the Patmos.

I think I just had mine in the parking lot behind Marvin's in Greencastle.

I just got off the phone with a former mentor of mine, Rex McDaniel, a Presbyterian minister who is on the cusp of retiring and "near the promised land" as I joked with him.  After a bit of catching up, I asked Rex how ministry was going.

His description of his church's position and his own floored me with its relevance for my own life.

Rex has been in ministry since the mid 70's sensing a call to love others in the name of Jesus when the Church in American still believed it's best years were ahead of it.  He grew up as a pastor out on the East Coast in the 1980's and early 90's, watching his congregation and his family grow with the suburbs surrounding them.  Then, in the late 90's he returned home to Southern California where he has been the pastor for Calvary Presbyterian Church in South Pasadena for over fifteen years now.  He came as a wise and experienced minister; the kind of man aptly capable of steering the ship of a large Presbyterian congregation that had enjoyed decades of life as a congregation.  The narthex of the church is lined with the pictures of former ministers - all men - who have stood in that same pulpit before Rex, like mighty captains overseeing and steering the vessel of the church:  sitting on committees, preaching on Sundays, visiting the sick, launching new programs, being the public face of the church in the community.

That role of being pastor to the flock and minister in the community is a role that Rex has enjoyed.  He wouldn't say this about himself, but I can:  he's done well in his role.  Calvary Presbyterian Church has been blessed by his ministry.  And, as Rex himself said, the church has been very good to him as well.  By that he means not just that specific congregation in South Pasadena.  He means too the overall mother Church and our denomination.  Because Rex was able to minister at least in the waning days of Christendom, he's been able to enjoy the benefits of having cultural relevance.  He's been asked to join Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis meetings in each place he's served.  He's been granted special discounts from time to time.  And, most importantly for a man on the cusp of retirement, he's been blessed with a pension and retirement plan that far exceeds what most Americans can expect these days, not to mention an incredible condo facing the idyllic scenery of the Rose Bowl of all places.  Rex, true to his name's sake, has a regal future in front of him, and he knows it.

But, he also knows this.

It's not going to be this way for me or for those in my generation.

The game is ending.

Time is running out.

And here is how Rex knows this is true.

For several years, Calvary Presbyterian Church has been running a preschool on its campus.  This preschool is a shining light in the community.  It has a waiting list and families in the area are eager to get their kids into it.  For years, though, very few of the families who have children in the preschool actually come to Calvary Presbyterian Church on Sunday.  That's nothing new.  But, this is.
During the week, Rex and the rest of the ministry team at Calvary hosts a mid-week chapel service for the preschool.  In the past, it's just always been there, and nothing much was made of it.  But, as Rex said, in the last few years, more and more parents are insisting that their kids not go to the chapel service.  They're afraid that their children will be force-fed some type of doctrine.  They are convinced that the church will be bad for their children.

And this is the change.

It's been happening so subtly, it's hard to really believe it's true.

But here we are.

There was a time when church life served as a type of center for American families along with the local school, sports teams, and civic life.  Back in those days, in the 1960's even up until the 1980's, if you were a middle class family, church was likely a part of your weekly rhythm.

"Now," Rex admitted to me, "the idea of a Lord's Day worship rhythm for families isn't even something they are considering."  It's not even on their radar.

Not that Rex and Calvary haven't tried to make it more appealing.  They, like so many other churches, have tried to make the packaging more appealing to the customer.  They first tried a blended style of worship and brought in the guitars and more expressive means of worship.  They then went full bore and completely contemporary, a move that has helped bring some passion back to the congregation that is already there.  Only problem is it hasn't actually brought in anyone else from the wider community.

No matter how attractive and appealing Rex and Calvary try to make Sunday morning, it's just not something many people in Southern California are interested in.


Here's the analogy that helps me conceptualize what is happening:

When I was growing up, I used to eat all kinds of sugary-cereal.  Coco-puffs.  Lucky Charms.  Fruity Pebbles.  You name it, I probably had it.  And every time I went to the grocery store, that's where I wanted to go.  I wanted to see Count Chocula and Tony the Tiger.

Now, when my wife takes the kids to the grocery store, they hardly even set foot in that aisle.  My wife bee-lines it to the value boxes of Raisin Bran or Grape Nuts, picks up the goods and gets out of their as quick as she can.  Or, she doesn't even make it that far.  She goes to the new organic section and picks up something that is healthier.

She knows that those "other" cereals are not good for our kids, or at least not as good as they could be.  So, she chooses not to expose them to what she calls the sugar of "white death" or tries to expose them to healthier dietary options.

Don't you see this is precisely the same shift that has occurred in how our culture views Christianity these days?

I doubt there are many here in our community who believe that Christianity is an out-and-out danger to their children, but I can assure you there are some.

But, even if that isn't the case, there are many more here in our community who might feel like what the Christian faith has to offer may be good ... it's just not as valuable as ... well ... developing those skills that will make your child attractive to a good college, becoming an honor student at school, or developing some musical or athletic potential.  Besides, there is something to the whole realm of faith that can be a bit too fanatical, as we've been rudely reminded of in recent weeks with the onslaught of visiting "street preachers."

Far more important to most parents these days is whether or not their kids get into a preschool like Calvary's got than finding a church community like what Calvary offers.


There's more.

There's another reason why Rex isn't so sure guys like me will be able to go the distance like he has in ministry.

In this modern reality that Rex is seeing so clearly, the question isn't, "How can we get people to come to our church?"  It's "How can we equip our members to go out and be church where they are?"

For so long, big, mainline churches like the Presbyterian Church have operated on the assumption that if they just open up their doors, people will eventually find their way to their parking lot and into their pews.

Those days are long gone.

The problem, though, is that big, mainline denominations don't make the transition from "come-to-us" to "go-to-you" easily.  In fact, they often don't make it all.  And that's precisely the tension Rex feels as he prepares to bless his congregation for the last time and ventures into retirement.  He's not sure Calvary Presbyterian is going to make it.

He can see that promised land where the church has to be willing to give up its very identity, but the church still has a lot of core members who aren't ready to admit that.  That core group is still chasing a fantasy ... an illusion ... a memory.  They still harbor the prospect of getting back to "1962 Calvary" as Rex describes it.

So there's this impasse.  Maybe there's a reason why Moses and his generation couldn't make that trip on into the Promised Land.  The transition is too severe.  The death and rebirth too demanding.

Churches like Calvary and Greencastle Presbyterian are not going to find their way by going backwards in time.

But, it takes a type of rebirth entirely to give away that image in favor of going out to be in the midst of the wider community.

It takes becoming a culture of Christian missionaries living as a minority within a dominant secular America.

And for me and my generation of ministers, it's going to mean giving up on a lot of those assumed cultural privileges that Rex readily admits are nice but never guaranteed for those who walk by faith.  That nice pension may not be there.  The prospect of watching a church grow through the decades with the minister is highly unlikely.

More likely, the time will come ... and perhaps not very long from now ... when I will have to find a way to return to the ways of Paul, to become a tent-maker of sorts and find another occupation, to find a means of supporting myself so that my work isn't about helping navigate a large, mainline vessel of a church.  Instead, my work will become a means of earning what is necessary to support my family, to live in a place, and to do the work of Jesus Christ in a more incarnational way.


And all that from one phone call in a parking lot from behind Marvin's.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.