The Rev. Timothy Cargal, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry in Mid Council Ministries of the Office of the General Assembly.
“... the Land that I Will Show You” is the blog of the Office of Preparation for Ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This blog is designed to serve as a resource for those discerning and preparing for a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament as ordained teaching elders of the church. It will also provide a place for reflecting on and dialoging about the changing context of pastoral ministry in the early 21st century.
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In my blog post last week I explored some facts about smaller congregations and ministry that are often overlooked. In this post, I want to draw attention to one of those facts that is shared in common with larger—and indeed, “mega” —churches, and to reflect on its implications for those entering ministry in the 21st century.
One of the demographic forces that researchers have identified as reducing the size of many congregations has been an inability to bridge the increasingly wider generational span in American communities. As congregations get older, and as the differences between “older” and “younger” come to represent as many as five generations, it is more difficult both to meet the ministry needs of and provide opportunities for folks at opposite ends of that spectrum. Churches that don’t span that growing gap will experience downward pressures on their membership.
As I was driving to worship on Sunday morning, I heard a story on NPR about the bankruptcy reorganization plan for Crystal Cathedral in southern California (you can read the transcript or listen to the report on the NPR website by clicking here). What stood out to me in the report were some comments by Diane Winston, a researcher on media and religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, and Scott Thumma, a professor at Hartford Seminary who studies mega churches.
According to the report, Winston pointed to the “homogenous” nature of the congregation. Even though Schuller had reached out to his community in direct ways when he started the ministry more than 50 years ago, the congregation had not continued to reflect the community (and the society, through its television outreach) as it changed. “And the fact that he hasn't grown the church in significant ways may explain why it's graying and why it's so white.” Similarly, Thumma concluded that because the church kept with its “brand” of worship and ministry as defined by its television ministry decades earlier, it was destined for trouble if it didn’t adjust to changes in “culture and society and worship styles.”
Regardless of their present size—whether microcommunities or mega churches—congregations that will continue well into the 21st century must be able to adapt to the changes in the broader community around them. They will need pastoral leaders who can not only minister to a broad spectrum of people in terms of age, race, and other demographic categories, but also who can develop ministry opportunities for such diverse groups to offer ministry to others.
Those entering ministry don’t just need to be able to help congregations make changes in the current cultural moment; they must be able to help congregations do it again and again over the years to come. Regardless of one’s general opinion about the Crystal Cathedral, Schuller reached out to his community when he arrived in southern California, but staying with the model for too long proved to be one of the seeds of its decline. A crucial characteristic for those engaged in ministry in this ever-changing land is adaptability.