The Lay of the Land
In the first chapter of his landmark book Transforming Congregational Culture United Church of Christ pastor Tony Robinson argues that North American culture has radically changed over the past twenty-five years, from a de facto Christendom in which mainline churches formed the religious establishment to the current secular, pluralistic, and postmodern culture in which mainline churches have become marginalized. Robinson identifies five factors characteristic of this culture shift:
1) A generational change in which “motivation” has replaced “obligation” as a reason to do something, i.e. for Boomers and succeeding generations participation is based on personal meaning rather than a sense of duty
2) Loss of social trust and the erosion of religious authority
3) Religious pluralism and the corresponding loss of a “meta-narrative”, a common story that binds us together
4) The shift from a “modern” mindset (emphasis on reason, norms, self-sufficiency, and progress) to a “postmodern” mindset (skeptical of rationality, cultural norms, and progress, truth is relative, image-oriented)
5) The complacency of mainline churches in the face of enormous cultural and demographic shifts
How accurate do you think Robinson is in naming the cultural shift factors that have changed the context for ministry and mission in the last twenty to thirty years? What other significant factors would you add to his list?
What effects have these factors had on your congregational life and mission? Would you characterize your congregation’s overall reaction to the changing context of ministry as:
b) staying the course
e) making the most of the time
Voices from Our Maine Conference Churches
“We have fewer volunteers and a smaller core leadership group than a generation ago.”
“The younger folk don’t have the same level of responsibility and commitment that our older members have.”
“We just don’t have many folks in their twenties, thirties, and forties.”
“Families are for the most part dual income and totally stressed out.”
“We can recruit teachers but not kids.”
“Our sacrificial givers are passing away, and our younger members just don’t have the same level of financial commitment and generosity as the older generation did.”
“We know what we left behind, but not where we’re headed.”
Are there any of these voices with which you can identify?
If you wanted to add your voice regarding changes in church life to those listed above, what would your quotation be?
Voices from Scripture
Read aloud Isaiah 40: 21-31 and Hebrews 11: 8-16.
The prophet Isaiah reminds the people that God is God and that they are to look to God’s empowering spirit rather than their own limitations and weariness.
Do you ever get so caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities of congregational life and church business that you lose sight of why the congregation exists in the first place?
If you had to sum up the purpose of your congregation in one sentence, what would it be?
Do you think your
congregation is doing a good job at keeping God at the center of its life in
its worship, teaching, fellowship, and service?
Are church meetings God-centered? How so? Is most of your meeting time devoted to work that clearly grows out of your congregation’s central purpose?
How do you keep yourself and others from growing weary with doing good? What opportunities for personal and congregational renewal and refreshment does your church provide? What opportunities for spiritual renewal for your pastor are provided or supported by the congregation?
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of Abraham and Sarah, who left behind familiar terrain to follow God’s promise. He reminds us that all the faithful throughout history have been, in some sense, strangers in a strange land, whose true homeland lies in an as yet unknown future with God.
Does the drastic rate of change in our society ever leave you feeling like a stranger in a strange land? Which changes in the surrounding culture do you applaud and embrace? Which changes do you see as problematic, or even destructive?
The write of Hebrews envisions Christians as a pilgrim people, a rather potent image for those of Congregational heritage. In what sense is your congregation a pilgrim people? Are there ways in which you have become a little too settled?
How often does your congregation stop on the pathway and intently listen for God’s voice? What do you think God might be saying to your congregation right now?
Possible Follow-up to This Study
Use Anthony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) as a study book. Contact the Resource Center if you would like a set of discussion questions written by Annette Mott to use with this book.
This study was written as a result of a 2003 sabbatical project by:
Director of Local Church Resources
Maine Conference, United Church of Christ