This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Families With Young Children.

            I have read enough Church Information Forms in the last year, during the time of my under-employment, to realize that most old-line churches are in decline… but they still think everything will be fine when they start attracting “families with young children” again.  So they seek a minister who can help them do this.  Indeed, the quest for “families with young children” is the epitome of the mindset we in the church inherited from the 1950’s.  Our vision for the future of the church is a replica of the remembered past, when the church was filled with families with young children.  We imagine everything would be great if only we could get back to those days!
            In reality (a place many churches avoid like root-canal) families-with-young-children is not the same demographic it was 50 years ago.  We have fixated on the classic nuclear family of a man and a woman of the same race, married to each other, each in their first and only marriage, with two or three natural offspring, living in the same house together.  Ideally, the man has a decent job and the woman is a full-time mother and homemaker, with lots of time to do volunteer church work. 
            Now, there are still people like this out there.  But if they were ever the norm they are not now.  These folks represent, to say the least, a shrinking demographic.  In addition, those of this category who do exist today are not necessarily attracted to the traditional experience of church.  Which means that churches are actually aiming the bulk of their “evangelistic” efforts at an even tinier and more precipitously declining demographic: “families-with-young-children, -who-enjoy-traditional-church.”
            I suspect that almost all of these people who do exist are already active members of churches.  To try and attract them to a church is, except when considering newcomers, inherently and necessarily a matter of “sheep stealing.”  (That’s the epithet we give the practice of one church trying to take members away from another church.)  How many churches that have shown explosive growth by attracting this demographic have largely drawn them from other nearby churches?
            Some churches have widened the demographic somewhat by making the church experience more user-friendly.  They go to a format more like The Tonight Show, with rock music, breezy and light monologues, and almost nothing “religious” in sight.  This worked (if by “working” we mean it got people to come, sit, and watch) for a while for some.  But even this has also maxed out and leveled off.      
            In short, the bid to center a church’s evangelistic efforts on families-with-young-children is, at best, a lateral movement within the larger church, where members shift from smaller churches with fewer programs, or churches undergoing conflict, to larger churches that offer more programs and are at least at the moment healthier.  At worst, this emphasis is a suicidal waste of resources.  It attempts to attract people who are simply not there.
            So, if these people are not out there, and the general population has increased over the past half century, it follows that there are lots of other people who actually are out there.  But, because they do not fit the fantasy of the church that wants to be what it once was, they are invisible.
            Which brings me to Jesus’ own understanding of evangelism, as he states it in some detail in the Parable of the Sower.

            Jesus said: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil.  And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.  Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.  Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 3:3-8).

            The first thing that strikes me about this parable is how sloppy the sower is.  He does not take care to cast the seeds only at the good soil.  He throws it everywhere, all over the place.  His profligacy is out of control.  Everybody gets a chance to receive and nurture the good news. 
            This flies in the face of church growth experts who talk about churches targeting their outreach efforts at certain populations.  Churches are advised to undertake expensive demographic studies and analyses of population groups in the neighborhood around the church.   Then the idea is to shape the church’s message to appeal to the church’s selected target group. 
            But would Jesus do this kind of thing?  Do we ever find him re-engineering his message to attract or resonate with this or that interest group?  No.  While consultants advised churches to use a hook with bait designed to attract a very specific species of fish, Jesus casts a wide net intending to pull in a variety of fish (Matthew 13:47).
            The second thing that occurs to me about Jesus’ parable is that the seed is sent into the different kinds of soil.  It does not stay in the sower’s bag, with the sower somehow expecting the soil to come to him.  This is not an invitational approach.  This is not “if you built it they will come.”  The soil goes nowhere.  The seed is thrown onto it.  We in the church have been spending almost all of our energy trying to get people to come to us, as if we were retail outlets waiting for customers.  We have built expensive silos in which to store the seed of the word, expecting apparently to distribute it to those who show up.  But if we follow Jesus’ example we should be investing in seed spreading technology.  
            The third thing I notice here is that the church has chosen to target its seeds mainly on a certain kind of soil:  the elusive, mythical “families with young children.”  The church imagines this is “good soil,” but, as I have suggested above, it isn’t.  If it were good soil it would have produced the kind of lives Jesus inspires (Mark 4:20).  It hasn’t.  For instance, the “children” in the families-with-young-children who were so prevalent in the 1950’s, are largely gone from the church.  Focusing on this group back then did not result in the exponential harvest Jesus talks about.  Churches today are full of elderly people whose children and grandchildren find no reason to accept the good news.  
            Which means that the church has been busy intentionally and deliberately pouring nearly all of its seeds into bad ground.  And, because the good soil does not look like the church’s fantasy of the way things were in 1956, the church is assiduously ignoring it.  And then we wonder why the past 50 years of evangelistic/church growth strategies and tactics haven’t produced any significant fruit (except for church growth consultants).
            Jesus interprets the parable himself.

            “The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.  And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy.  But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.  And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.  And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:14-20).

            The unproductive soil is described in three ways. 
            First, there is the road or path.  The seed just lies there until “Satan” comes and takes it away.  These are folks who just don’t get it.  The word bounces off of them and makes no impact.  It doesn’t sink in.  They forget it and move on. 
            Second, there is the rocky ground, where the seed is under constant challenge from “trouble or persecution.”  Its roots can’t go deep, and the new plant remains weak and eventually dies from overt hostility. 
            Third, there is the ground already covered in thornbushes.  The plants trying to sprout there may gain some root, but they can’t go higher because of the competition from shrubbery, cutting off the sunlight and giving no room.  These plants also die.  Jesus explicitly says the choking bushes are like “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things.”  It is not hostility but the distractions of prosperity that kill this plant.             
            I wonder if there is any class of people more likely to be distracted by these kinds of concerns than families with young children.  If this demographic is so golden, why did the church of the 1950’s and 1960’s deflate so profoundly?  Clearly, this was not a good foundation upon which to build even then.      
            Notice that Jesus never says the word should not be sown in these unproductive kinds of soil anyway.  He remains a profligate and generous sower.  No one will be deprived a chance to embrace and respond to the word.
            In Jesus’ own ministry, he found the good soil in unlikely places.  “Tax-collectors and prostitutes” represent Jesus’ followers.  The religious elite generally classed these people as “sinners.”  Among outcasts, workers, slaves, women, the diseased, the possessed, the broken, the poor, and otherwise marginalized people… this is mostly where Jesus found good soil for the word.
            Which leads to where the church needs to go today.  We need to lose the fixation on attracting “families with young children.”  Obviously, the church will extend the good news to them.  But we also want to aim much more broadly, as Jesus did, and bring his message and practices to everyone. 
            That includes a lot of people whom the church has largely ignored: single parents, blended- or step-families, adoptive and foster families, and GLBT parents with children; and singles, disabled people, ethnic and economic minorities, empty-nesters, retired people, unmarried couples (Gay and straight), college students, the un- or underemployed, migrant workers, institutionalized people (in prisons, jails, nursing homes, rehab centers)….  And so on.
            Maybe we’d get more traction if we followed Jesus’ advice and example and started sowing the seed of the good news a lot more widely.

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