I’m going to come right out and say it. The economics of future-proofing the church are directly dependent on the generosity of older generations. If the church as we know it is to survive the next two decades, it’ll be because something changed.
Either we changed or the culture changed. Or maybe the circumstances changed. Or all three.
If there is no change, however, then we will run out of time and we will be changed against our will. This event will happen, not because we screwed up someplace, but because that’s the law of nature. The status quo leads to death. We know this from physics and the law of entropy, which regards that energy is either growing or declining. The very cycle of life is growth or decline. The only way to stave off decline is to put more energy into the system.
And in the end, all things still die. All things come to an end. We can’t Botox the church forever.
The Church is dead! Long live the Church!
As certain as things die, we know that new life is created. Our central theological principle: the very thing that makes us Christians: is compatible with the central notion of nature. We will one day die. And from our death, new life will come.
Unless we wrap ourselves in plastic or encase our bodies in airtight and watertight boxes, encased in cement. Then we can’t possibly provide new life.
This is why the way we talk about “the dying church” matters so much to the way we understand the church itself. Because we can love this incarnation of the church and we can fight to preserve it with every ounce of strength we possess, but
- it will eventually die
- the church will be reborn
- and we are called by GOD to do a new thing.
So talk of the death of our church is not the same as the death of The Church. It certainly doesn’t prevent GOD from transforming the world. In fact, it might actually help. As ashes, excrement, and rotting plants and animals provide nourishment for the soil, decaying churches can create the very stuff that allows The Church to grow and thrive.
You might be interested in making sure this church survives the process. I can totally relate to that. Here’s the one thing that would ensure we have more time, the one bit of new energy that can be pumped into the system to provide opportunity for growth.
Our oldest generations must be more generous than they already are. Notice that I am not saying “old people are stingy.” I am saying our oldest two generations need to be more generous. There are two reasons.
The Basic Economics
The Silents (b. 1930-45) and Baby Boomers (b. 1946-64) have more disposable income than the younger generations. There are more of them in the church, and there is a great need for more economic participation in the system from these groups. This is precisely the case because these are the generations that have the greater means of contributing.
There is also significant data that shows that these two generations also have more room in their financial ability to give in two important ways. One is that these two generations do not currently give at the high levels of the Builder generation (b. 1914-29) much of which came of age during the Great Depression and served in World War II. The Builders gave, on the whole, a greater percentage of their income to civic groups and churches.
The other reason is the confluence of two economic benefits: many Silents and older Boomers benefited from the heyday of both Social Security and work-related pensions, which allowed them more flexibility for personal long-term investment. In other words, despite the fixed nature of their income, this is the wealthiest age group in the country and many of its member have dramatically more giving capacity to the church than Gen Xers and Millenials, whose student loan and credit card debt, decreased income potential, and little retirement savings opportunity make these generations severely disadvantaged in giving now and in the future.
This means that not only have we likely already peaked in potential giving to the church, we have only decline to look forward to.
Generosity in Spirit
As dreary as the economic picture may be, there is actually a much more important opportunity for generous giving by our oldest generations, and it doesn’t have to do with money. It has to do with accommodating difference and relinquishing control. And I don’t just mean in serving on unpopular committees or doing the work nobody wants to do.
This kind of generosity means being generous in spirit, not just action. It isn’t the dollars given or the welcome made when a new family shows up to church. It is about allowing people who are different to be different. Allowing people with different backgrounds to speak and feel as if they aren’t really all that different. Allowing space for different outlooks or experiences or views of the world.
It is ultimately, more than learning to deal with change. We think that’s bad enough, but this is worse. Much worse.
It is letting go of complete control.
It isn’t all about you
At a music conference I attended some time ago, I heard the most important rebuttal to liturgical selfishness I’ve ever heard. It goes like this:
After worship one Sunday, an older gentleman approached the music director with a concern.
I did not like that anthem the choir sang at the Offertory.
The music director thought for a moment.
Oh no? What was the problem?
Oh, I just didn’t like it.
Did you like the opening hymn?
Did you like the sequence hymn and the setting for the Gloria?
How about the Sanctus, the communion hymns, and the closing hymn?
You just didn’t like the anthem.
So you liked 7/8 of the music. Maybe that one piece wasn’t for you.
Either we can acknowledge that our tent is big enough to accommodate things we don’t like or else it is narrow enough to find ourselves excluded because it isn’t 100% what we want. But we can no longer pretend that our liturgical selfishness isn’t having a real impact on our potential.
I do not favor one liturgical style over another for the church. If you have ever joined me in worship, you know that I can be as “high” or as “low” as the congregation needs me to be. I can sing praise songs and ancient hymns. I can preach from a manuscript, from the floor, and collaboratively in a liturgical Bible study.
What I do favor, however, is shedding that ridiculous belief that our selfish preferences are deciding factors for the church. Because if we worshiped the way I want to, many of you would have more than just a little change to freak out about.
Let me break the fourth wall and speak directly to my elders. This is why this isn’t about you, but about all of us. It is about how the younger generations need your generosity. We need you to choose to support us. We need you to choose a better church over a stagnant one. We need you to choose a generous spirit over a selfish or stingy one.
You may quibble about getting 7/8 rather than 8/8. And yet some of us are expected to be thankful that all we got is 1/8 because at least its something.
What if I were asking you to try on our shoes? ‘Cause right now, you’re making out like a bandit. And many of us are lying in the road, watching a priest and a Levite walk right on by.