-by Peggy Hahn (She/Hers), Executive Director of LEAD
What is the new hope—or new order of behavior and thinking that is accessible to congregational leaders right now? If we agree that closing the gap between the neighborhood and the congregation represents the biggest hope for the future of Christian communities, pathways to membership are very different. Congregations seldom have a plan for making authentic relationships across social divides. Without meaningful neighborhood relationships (in-person or digital), local congregations are not sustainable. When leaders open themselves up to new learning, peer support, and encouragement, they have the capacity to alter this trajectory as they adapt to their changing neighborhoods.
Leaders know the church will not go back to pre-COVID-19 ministries, but they are not sure what to do. The pandemic accelerated the end of church membership and committee life as we knew it. Isolation has increased the need for mental health in our communities. Congregations can work together to effectively make plans to become sources of healing and hope in their neighborhoods. By listening to their neighbors and partnering to build solutions, not only for themselves but also for their neighborhood, renewal that fits within the congregation’s values and mission is possible.
Members of the congregation are afraid of making matters worse. The big elephant in the room remains the resistance to trying something new. They ask, “But what if people leave?” Many already have. No one wants more atrophy so the resistance to change is amplified. Yet LEAD has seen that where there are clarity of vision, action steps, support, learning, and a willingness to take risks, new mission is being sparked. Those who are resistant to change are being heard, but they do not have the power to hold the future hostage. Some do leave. New people do come. LEAD walks with leaders as they listen deeply to everyone, including the people that have more energy for the past than the future. By understanding that the grief and resistance is personal for those people who have benefited from the past ways of being church, leaders can navigate complex relationships as they create a clear plan for the future.
People across the world have experienced rapid and unimaginable change that has rocked the church. In most cases, neighborhoods changed ethnically and culturally years earlier with congregations disconnecting from their local communites. The pandemic revealed the racism, biases, and fear of losing control pervasive in leadership as neighborhood ministry has shifted from neighbors depending on each other to offering acts of charity. Rapid cultural shifts like this create remarkable opportunities for either hunkering down, or innovating out of a core theological and traditional grounding. In most cases, mainline congregations have hunkered down. Patterns for decision-making have been focused inward. As younger people have not returned in the way former generations did, the average age of the congregation has rapidly increased leaving most in steady decline. We have hit a relational crisis point as a church.
Understanding the changing landscape of neighborhoods, including the characteristics, interests, histories, and challenges facing the people in their neighborhoods, is critical to how we gather as church. In some cases, these neighbors are the people across the country who gather in digital spaces. These changes call the church to reinvent how Christian culture is formed, gathered, and sent. Questions about belonging take on new understandings as relationships change.
LEAD envisions a new order: sent, gathered, and formed. We will unpack one of these each week over the next three weeks. We hope this encourages conversation at your staff and council/board tables. Use these three questions to shape conversation now:
- What does it mean to be truly known by name?
- Who are the people living in your neighborhood / community. Describe what you know about them.
- What would it take to know them by name?