I think by now we’ve learned to temper our expectations of the new year, especially after the last few. We know better than to make resolutions that a global pandemic or political crisis might interrupt.
However, I am reminded of the words of Jeremiah. The prophet lived during the invasion of Judah by the Babylonian empire. Before the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, God instructed Jeremiah to write to the exiles already taken into Babylon these words: Build houses, plant gardens, raise families, pray for the welfare of the city in which you reside (29:4-7). Though Jeremiah knew that Jerusalem would fall to Babylon, God also gave a promise: in a few generations, the people in exile will return. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).
It is hard to raise our expectations. The pandemic may have been declared over, but the occupancy of hospitals is increasing with rising cases of Covid, RSV and flu at the time I write this. We’re not going back to normal, we aren’t even embracing a new normal—we’re understanding that there is no such thing as normal. It is not normal for over one million people to die in fewer than three years from one disease in the United States, and 6.7 million people worldwide. Many survivors are experiencing long Covid symptoms and illness. We’re politically divided. Most churches are not seeing the number of people on an average Sunday return to what it used to be. The church went through about twenty years of change in two.
This is the kicker: nothing will be like it used to be. The exiles learned that the hard way. When we read Ezra and Nehemiah and the latter prophets, we see that the exiles returned home and had divisions among themselves. Sometimes they wanted to cut themselves off from everyone else. Sometimes they had to embrace the culture of the time to survive. They struggled, and they never got back to their “glory days” of David and Solomon—and if you read Samuel and Kings, you know that even in the “glory days” they were full of division and strife and violence. But still, the promise of God endures: God plans for our welfare and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.
So it is with us. Nothing will be like we remember it because even our memories are clouded. What may have seemed a great, wonderful time for us may have been filled with hardship for others. A white pastor friend once called the 60’s the “Leave it to Beaver” years based on his childhood memories, but another Black pastor colleague pointed out all the acts of violence he experienced as a child, including the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Our nostalgia is often a very narrow view.
So here we are, entering 2023. I recently read Reorganized Religion: The Reshaping of the American Church and Why It Matters by Bob Smietana. The first two chapters of the book didn’t surprise me—we know that church attendance has been dwindling for some time since our “glory years” of the 50’s and 60’s. In the 1980’s, average attendance for churches nationwide was around 135. Now it’s 65. One reason is simple reproduction math: families are having fewer children today. Many of our churches are still relying on nostalgic ways of thinking about church. Church was where you knew your family and friends for so long, and now there are other places and organizations.
But there are many other reasons today why that number is sharply dropping. One thing that concerns me as an executive minister is the focus internally on institutional survival. Many churches continue to do things the same way they have done them for many years, but the world has changed. Some churches have resisted the technological changes that would allow people to participate remotely. Others have added the technology, but kept those at home participating in a passive way, where they could only watch, instead of interacting and welcoming those online and encouraging them to give and participate. Still others are focused only on getting people “back into church.”
Many churches have ignored the societal struggles of racism, violence, climate change, hateful rhetoric and rise of white Christian nationalism, in the hope of simply keeping people together. Sometimes we think that’s the safer option, but when racism and discrimination are affecting our own bodies, or we watch family members fall into the conspiracy theory wells, to ignore these things ignores the very pain people live with. Smietana interviews people who’ve left the church because the church couldn’t see the harm they were causing with their silence.
What Smietana concludes, however, is that while churches are shrinking, and yes, some churches are closing, is that despite the odds, we put our faith and trust in God. “Don’t be eager to pronounce the church dead. God is still at work. There is still hope.” While people are leaving churches, they are still seeking faith. People are still seeking a connection with God, a spiritual life.
I have witnessed hope and faith firsthand in our churches here in Wisconsin. We have churches that are focused outwardly: community gardens, street ministry, job training, mental health clinics, afterschool programs, vaccine clinics, food pantries, volunteering, and so much more. Funds were raised here to help the victims of war in Ukraine as well as the survivors of hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Florida. I have witnessed the tangible, life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit alive in our American Baptist Churches in Wisconsin. I’ve listened to our pastors bring anti-racism work to their congregations, hold hard conversations on gun violence, and raise up the issue of white Christian nationalism. I’ve witnessed congregations embracing those who have been harmed by other churches, leaning into Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves as their guide. This is trust in God lived out.
In 2023, we are turning our focus and attention to Next Generation Ministries. I’ll share more in the coming months, but studies from the Fuller Youth Institute show that when churches focus on next generation ministries, all generations benefit. When we minister with youth and young adults and not to them, we believe they are part of the church now, not just our future. Youth and young adults are much more concerned about issues of discrimination and violence and climate change as part of their faith in God, and when we don’t address those issues—not just in worship but in our action—and don’t include youth and young adults in our ministries, we are losing out.
The church has an opportunity for transformation, but we could miss it if we’re too worried about trying to go back to who we used to be. We don’t know for certain what is coming, but as Bob Smietana said, “Don’t be eager to pronounce the church dead.” Christ is risen, and so must we rise in a new way to live into Christ. God still has plans for us, a future with hope. Let’s build and plant here and now, meeting the needs of the people around us now, with our youth and young adults.
Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell
Save the Date for our Annual Gathering, focusing on Next Generation Ministries
October 13-15, 2023 at Green Lake Conference Center