The Alban Institute features Carol Howard Merritt's analysis of the challenge mainline congregations face, and how they should respond, adapted from her book Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation:
I cannot remember a time when the church was the hub of society and life. I was born in the 1970s, part of Generation X. I never lived in a church-centered world. When older members of my congregation tell me about it, I can imagine what it might have been like, just as I can envision a time when people went to church three times a week. But I have never lived in that reality. I’ve always been in a culture where church was a place my friends visited on Christmas Eve—and now even that tradition is beginning to fade. I grew up in the midst of church news filled with clergy affairs, prostitution, and pedophilia. Throughout most of my ministry, I have worked in the shadow of these dark wounds of Christianity, laboring in a world in which the church is renowned for its sex scandals and conservative politics, a world in which people proclaim, “Religion poisons everything.”
This is the culture I know. And this, strangely, is the place I feel most comfortable. It is not that I am happy about our current circumstances but simply that I have not experienced anything else. When I introduce myself as a pastor at parties or neighborhood gatherings, I encounter little awe or respect. Instead, I am met with a ravenous curiosity, as if people did not even realize it was still possible to make that career choice.
Yet, as many mainline churches move farther and farther to the sidelines of our culture, as megachurches lose their entertainment value, and as denominational leaders look to the next generation, there is a great deal of hope waiting to be kindled. I find inspiration in our growing congregation at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and in the fact that those who show up to worship here are drawn by a deep sense of community and search for God. I am encouraged by the larger landscape as well. The movement of young adults into urban centers and their ever-increasing reliance on local economies means the model that drove people to the megachurch is breaking down. Urban congregations that did not fare well during the 1970s and 1980s are beginning to see new vitality. The new pictures now coming into focus are shaped by changing demographics, shifting social concerns, and burning spiritual yearnings. As we look toward the future, we can see streams of living water bubbling.
When we consider the progressive political leanings of younger generations, we realize they long for spiritual communities that care deeply about social-justice issues—the same issues that our denominational congregations have been organizing around for hundreds of years. There is a deep spiritual yearning pervasive across generations, yet we know people will no longer settle for one-way preaching and entertaining services. They want meaningful worship, an empowered lay leadership, and a spirituality that leads to action. Again, people are longing for the very things that many denominational churches have been cultivating for decades.
Is she right?