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Alumni panels grapple with congregational life in “post-Christian” America

By Gustav Spohn ’73 M.A.R., Director of Communications and Publications

Town Hall DiscussionAt a time when the concept of America as a “Christian nation” is increasingly up for grabs, ministers, lay leaders and academics gathered at Yale Divinity School April 30-May 1 to talk about the challenges of church life in the 21st century and share insights about leadership in the congregation.

The overriding context for the discussion was set near the very beginning of the two-day conference, entitled “The Future of the Congregation,” when moderator Lillian Daniel ’93 M.Div. asked members of the first of two panels, “Is Christendom over?”  With a little prodding on Daniel’s part, that brought an outpouring of anecdotal evidence from the youthful panel— composed of seven Yale Divinity School graduates of 2004 and later—suggesting that, yes, indeed, it no longer makes sense to “assume that the culture is Christian.”

Just as the first panel set the context, it was a second panel of more experienced graduates, all but one of whom graduated in the 1980s, who drew upon years of experience to describe a kind of silver lining in the cloud hovering above the mainline American religious landscape: a secular and materialistic culture, caught in the storm of a severe economic downtown, that is ripe for a return to a more spiritual climate.

A crisis too good to waste

...we are at an evolutionary moment in the life of the Christian church in America.

“This is too good a crisis to waste, because people are open, and we are at an evolutionary moment in the life of the Christian church in America,” said Nancy Taylor ’81 M.Div., the first woman to serve as senior minister of Old South Church in Boston, a congregation of the United Church of Christ.  “I believe we have a message that the culture isn’t hearing....We have something way too good that people are missing out on.”

In Taylor’s view, there is no reason to apologize for seizing the moment and finding “opportunistic ways” to pass the Gospel message on to the next generation.

 “I see this as an absolutely critical moment for the church to exercise her mission in a most meaningful, prophetic, relevant way right now, said Kerry Robinson ’94 M.Div., the most recent graduate on the second panel and founding executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a Roman Catholic group.

Though an opportune time for the church may have arrived, panelists made clear that actually seizing the moment will not be easy and may involve new paradigms.  One of the most significant aspects of 21st century congregational life is that assumptions that may have been valid 50 years ago about familiarity with the Gospel no longer necessarily hold true.  In this day and age, there are many seekers, but not all seekers know what they are seeking.

Scott Black Johnston ’89 M.Div., senior minister at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, said he encounters many people who are wondering about the Gospel message of a loving and good God.

“I’m finding more and more that people are asking this question that David Kelsey (Luther Weigle Professor Emeritus of Theology) introduced me to here at YDS some years ago from the lips of Karl Barth,” said Johnston.  “They’re coming, wondering, 'Is it true?'... Atheists are pretty clear in their answer, and we’re not.”

However, Taylor, while acknowledging that Johnston’s perception resonates “to some degree,” argued,  “But I think there’s a lot of people who come [to church] who don’t know even what the ‘it’ is.   What they do know is that they’re living lives that are somewhat shallow and flat.

“If we are doing our job well helping to bring people into the very presence of God, we are bringing them deep things connecting them with what is...placing their lives in the context of eternity, and helping them to find meaning in what might be pain, or grief, as well as finding hope and joy in places they might not otherwise have been able to recognize.”

A need to educate

Robinson, an active parishioner in Yale’s Catholic community at the St. Thomas More Chapel & Center, noted that Yale students from around the world attend St. Thomas More who, though “brilliant,” possess a very poor catechesis.  First and foremost, she said, people are looking for welcoming and hospitable communities.

David Wood ’89 S.T.M., coordinator of the Transition into Ministry program, a Lilly Endowment program that seeks to provide resources to pastors in their earliest years of ministry, recalled pastoring a congregation in rural Maine where only a few parishioners had education beyond the high school level.  He decided to teach a midweek course in church history, and 30 people showed up, demonstrating what he said was “a hunger among these people to learn the story of the church.” 

Getting people to church in post-Christendom is no easy task and, when it happens, can even be a source of surprise for ministers.   Given all of the distractions and options available on Sundays—there is no longer a “hallowed day,” asserted panelist Sarah Scherschligt ’04 M.Div., associate pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Gaithersburg, MD—voluntary church attendance is “remarkable” and “amazing,” said Wood.

Jeffrey Haggray ’88 M.Div., executive director/minister of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, said there needs to be more outreach and less reliance on individuals and families coming to church on their own.

The church is not looking for them, and they are not looking for the church.

Observed Haggray, “The church is not looking for them, and they are not looking for the church.  We’re like ships passing in the night, or on AM/FM, two different frequencies... The message ‘to go’ is to the church, not to the world.  Jesus did not tell the world, ‘Go to church.’  He told the church ‘Go to the world.’  And we sit in church wondering why they don’t come.”

Compelling messages

Once people are in church, there needs to be a message that is compelling— some panelists used the word “relevant.”

Carol Pinkham Oak ’85 M.Div. rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, MD, suggested that the church, amid the gloom of the times, has “a completely different and wonderful message to share with people.”

Said Oak,  “There is a presence, there is a sacrament to our lives that can change how we are now and what the future is going to look like even though we don’t have to necessarily know what that is now, but that we have that power now to share with one another that sense of God’s purpose.”

For Taylor, a key element is to convey the excitement of the Gospel in church: “I would propose that part of what needs to happen is that it needs to be a place that is truly exciting in which people are being connected with things that matter deeply.”  She said that, every Sunday, the staff at Old South Church assumes that people in the pews have either lost their faith during the previous week or never had it.

Church can and ought to be as riveting, as enthralling, as compelling, in its own way, as is Fenway Park...

Said Taylor,  “Church can and ought to be as riveting, as enthralling, as compelling, in its own way, as is Fenway Park when the Sox are in town.... We want that person to break that thing open, that Word, give it to us in a way that helps us to see and feel God’s presence.  I think some excitement, as well as elegance and beauty, and contemplation, is what’s wanted.”

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian’s Scott warned against giving too much weight to “relevance,” arguing that it represents “a certain idolatry” and that it sometimes make sense to talk about “some of the basic stuff” that may not make sense to many 21st century Americans—like Baptism or the Eucharist.

Jeffrey Braun ’04 M.Div., senior minister of the First Congregational Church in Cheshire, CT, suggested that terms like “post-Christendom” and “post-Christian era” are indicative of what he called “a very subtle perhaps unconscious abdication of the church, and by that I mean all of us, not just pastors, together saying, how are we to be relevant?”

An age-old story still vibrant

The church must remember the “age-old story” that is still “vibrant and needed,” said Braun.  He said “the old story told newly” holds the key to reinvigorating an institutional Christianity that is “very much still alive but... needs an infusion of new blood and new life and a conversation across generations and across cultures, not just with one model that used to work.”

For members of the panel of more recent graduates, several specific challenges to ministry in the 21st century stood out: the pervasiveness of more conservative forms of Christianity in the culture; ministering to young people; a focus on church membership and finances over ministry and spirituality.
Scherschligt, whose church is affiliated with the more liberal branch of Lutheranism, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pointed to “the prevalence of a kind of theology that I so fundamentally disagree with, but it’s out there so extremely... we’re very Lutheran and they [parishioners] are saying things that don’t strike me as very Lutheran”

In particular, Scherschligt said she is concerned about the presence of “biblical literalism” in the fabric of the culture.

Daniel recalled similar encounters in her congregations, prompting her to think, “Who in this church ever told you that, and who shaped you as a fundamentalist?  Nobody here did.  But there’s this other theology coming at them that’s so powerful in the culture that even somebody who’s formed in a (more liberal) tradition feels it.”

The challenge of young people

Panel DiscussionMinistering to 21st century young people presents its own set of challenges. 

Angela Batie ’07 M.Div. campus minister for graduate students at St. Louis University, a Catholic university, said she was surprised at how little students cared about theology specifically.  For her, the way to work with students is to engage them on a personal level.  “What matters to them,” she said, “is that somebody cares.”  But her theological training at YDS remains critical, she noted, “... because that’s what brings me alive, that’s what keeps me grounded... that’s what gives me confidence to say why I’m doing this.”

Nancy McLaren ’06 M.Div., director of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church in New Haven and previously director of formation and outreach at multiethnic Fourth Presbyterian in South Boston, where she dealt extensively with children and youth, voiced similar feelings.  For McLaren, it is the close personal relationships that enriches her ministry, and treading the fine line between leadership and respecting the wishes of young people “who don’t want to be told what to do.”

“Oh, my gosh, my personal life just flew out the window, and happily so,” McLaren said of her arrival at Fourth Presbyterian. “I don’t know what it was, but I felt so glad by the end of my time at Fourth that I had invested so much in these people and that it wasn’t cumbersome.  It was real and it was friendships. And it was a really rich journey for all of us together.”

Congregational concern about “numbers” can also be daunting, especially for new pastors.

Robert Leacock ’05 M.Div., associate rector for liturgy and worship at wealthy, 7,200-member Saint Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, which is served by a staff of 40 full-time employees, said, “It’s constantly, how many people showed up, how much money did we raise, all these things.”  Leacock said his goal is to push the parish “ not to think like that automatically but to think in terms of quality.”

Smaller, less wealthy churches can also be caught up in numbers, noted Jason Turner ’06 M.Div., pastor of Community Baptist Church in New Haven. “I did feel an immense pressure when coming to the place where I serve,” said Turner.  “They were kind of looking to me saying, ‘You’re going to inject this new life, you’re going to help this church grow.’ It’s the same struggle, just on different scales.”

An affirmation of opportunities

On the whole, alumni on both panels appeared more engaged in the opportunities presented by the perceived end of Christendom in the United States, rather than bemoaning its demise.

I like that I have to find out what someone believes about God and that it requires some sort of exchange if we’re going to have a conversation.

Kaji Spellman, pastoral resident at the Wellesley Congregational Church in suburban Boston, said, “I like that I have to find out what someone believes about God and that it requires some sort of exchange if we’re going to have a conversation.  I like that someone can meet me and not assume that I grew up in church, which I didn’t, or that I’m a certain kind of minister.”

Anthony Robinson, a United Church of Christ minister and popular speaker and writer on issues related to the vitality of congregations, facilitated at the conference and at the end of the first panel remarked, “What I hear you saying is affirming the opportunities that have arisen in the end of Christendom... I hear you talking about ‘I love the great diversity in our new time,’ that you see some possibilities and opportunities, and I think that’s right where the discussion ought to be.”

Noting that panelists had spoken of the need to think of accessibility in new ways, Robinson said he particularly liked the story of a “dog ministry” at Manhattan’s Park Avenue United Methodist Church, where Jessica Anschutz ’07 M.Div. is associate pastor.  For about an hour before Sunday services, Anschutz greets passersby on the sidewalk in front of the church and passes out biscuits to any dogs they might be walking as a way to “break the ice.”

“The presence of this street ministry has really given the congregation a presence in the community,” said Anschutz, a member of the first panel, “and a lot of people view our church as the neighborhood church. The doors are open Monday-Friday during the day, and people come in and pray.  There are people who come in with their dogs and will come up to the altar and kneel and pray.”

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