In this time of cultural change, the church has an incredible opportunity to reach younger generations through innovative ways to tell its stories, according to the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt.
The Rev. Merritt, author of “Tribal Church” and “Reframing Hope,” is leading the annual Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College, which is co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the college with funding assistance from Ron Smith.
Churches can look to Paul’s example as they look for ways to reach out and engage young adults in the life of the church. “Paul did not wonder aimlessly, he was very strategic,” said Rev. Merritt, who is co-host of God Complex Radio and blogger for Christian Century and Huffington Post. “He went to port cities and places that were crossroads of trade. He knew that where he went, he would reach people.”
Likewise, she said, church leaders can be as strategic in reaching out in such ways as using podcasts of sermons that can be downloaded not only by the local congregation, but all over the nation or world and blogs to tell about the church’s work to serve the poor, disaster victims and other community services on blogs.
Rev. Merritt said she did not want to convey that there is no hope for small, rural churches in the future. Serving as a pastor of a rural Louisiana church, Rev. Merritt said church members relied on each other and helped each other get through the challenges of life. That sense of community is something that smaller churches can do much better than large churches and have been doing for years, she said. “The smaller churches are better prepared to handle the cultural shift.”
Creativity is needed to reach people in this time of change, Rev. Merritt said. For example, she said, her husband is in the process of starting a church in Chattanooga. He has been creating a network of artisans, artists and business people in the city and is setting up a local food market to provide fresh produce and basic staples to a community that has not had ready access to them.
“It is an idea of empowering the community in a different way, sharing with one another,” she said. “It gives the message that with Jesus Christ, we have abundance.”
This way of starting a church, bringing different people together and forming a worshiping community, is different from the way churches began in the past, she said, when a building was constructed and people were expected to come.
While the question of this type of church’s long-term sustainability is still unanswerable, there is a need to look differently at churches. “If we are going to thrive in the next generation, we need to start thinking more like Jesus in Luke 10 when he sent out disciples, saying ‘the 70 of you, you have power and authority go out and teach ahead of me.”
For a new generation of people, the “bigger is better” model is not working, and they are searching for a deeper community where they feel valued and cared for mind, body and soul. This means an adjustment for the church away from looking at what the church can build or buy as a measure of success to perhaps measuring how it has reached out to the community in deeper and different ways, Rev. Merritt said.
Some say that the church needs to be more mission minded – “realizing how God is working in the community and how we can support and sustain that work,” Rev. Merritt said.
There has been a shift in culture from people being expected to go church to that not being the expectation, she said. “In a way that is frustrating and upsetting, but the positive side is the people who are there in church are not there out of expectation, but are there because they need something.”
Each generation is responsible for caring for one another, the giving and receiving that is part of the church community, she said.
Differences in generations can be seen in regards to giving, Rev. Merritt continued. The Silent Generation, who was born from 1927-1945, considers giving as part of their civic duty to their community, she explained. The Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, are more idealistic and give toward efforts that are going to make a change to better someone’s life or the community. Members of Generation X, those born from 1965-1983, are more pragmatic in their outlook and want to give to efforts that “get the job done to help people.” Those born between 1984 and 2002, now known as the “Millenials” have been described as civic-minded and very team oriented. She said she would like to see churches engage this generation to discover how it wants to give.
Rev. Merritt also discussed the shift toward post-modernism with the breakdown of the meta-narrative, a predominant western philosophy in which history is seen as a progressive swing upward in that things were always improving.
However, a shift away from that began after World War II when people became aware of the depth of evil that people could do to one another and that technology does not always result in things getting better as technology had enabled the destruction of life on a massive scale, Merritt said.
Likewise, she said, there has been a shift in theology from the dominance of theological thought by the foundational European male theologians to the inclusion of other voices, such as women or liberation theologians that have different stories to tell.
Sharing testimonies, stories in essence, has long been part of church and can be a way for talking between generations, Rev. Merritt said, telling of the hope she found in listening to the stories of an older friend about surviving the Great Depression and growing in her faith.
In another church where she served, people who joined were asked to tell their faith journey and “it was some of the most holy moments in the church,” she said.
Telling stories deepen connections between people in churches, she said. For example, she said, she had a Lenten worship series in which people from each generation were asked to tell how God had worked in their lives or about a mentor who inspired them in their spiritual journey. “The sense of bonding between the generations was often palpable,” she said.
Merritt will conclude her discussions Feb. 26 with a look at how churches can faithfully respond to changes in culture, including examples of what has been successful in congregations around the country.
The sessions begin at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum College campus. There is no charge to attend the lecture series, but reservations are required as lunch is provided in the college’s cafeteria. For more information or to register, please call 423-636-7304 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.