By J. Mark Jordan
Church Life in the New Millennium: The new generation of churchgoers presents challenges to pastors and leaders that differ significantly from the stereotypes of the past. The old assumptions no longer work. We need to take a fresh look at the way we handle the people who are caught up in the sweeping social and cultural revolution. The leadership of the Holy Spirit has become more necessary now than ever. Let’s look at the problem from the perspective of the church.
Returned Prodigals. Those who left the church many years ago and have just returned have unique needs and cannot be lumped together with everyone else. Do not assume that they “know the score.” Understand that they have had little or no spiritual growth for years. They resemble Rip Van Winkle, who woke up from a twenty-year nap. When they come back, therefore, they have highly idealized and naive expectations of themselves and others. If they left church as a child or a teenager, they still have a child’s or a teenager’s view of the church. Also, those who enjoyed a relatively high status before they left may never achieve the same level. The initial enthusiasm of their return may fade quickly when it dawns on them that they forfeited their previous esteem. First, make them aware that their salvation is more important than anything else. After a reasonable passage of time, they may once again be qualified for advancement. These things have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Spiritual Stepchildren. Not all move-ins are the same. Some have relocated to your city because of a job situation. Some are going to school, joining the military, or are adjusting to changing family circumstances. Others, however, are refugees from church fights or have suffered embarrassing problems that forced them to leave and go elsewhere. The protocols of the transfers are another story, but after they come, the immediate concern must focus on the welfare of the move-in. In their new church environment, they experience many of the same emotions that stepchildren have in real life. They do not respond to authoritarian leadership. They must be persuaded, affirmed, and won over.
The Plugged-In. The local church no longer serves as the only source of religious information for today’s members. The Internet has revolutionized communication and networking. People have access to multiple sources of church-world news, theological views, newsletters, special interest groups, chat rooms, Web sites, and forums that disseminate ideas from every doctrinal position imaginable. Maintaining control in the new millennium has become a far more difficult task than ever before. Church leaders must continue to educate themselves about the subjects that much of their congregation knows like the backs of their hands. Those who refer to hippies, discos, and other outdated terms of the past alienate their younger audience. We cannot ignore the fact that a ready-made argument against nearly everything we preach and teach exists in the minds of churchgoers. The more dated and out-of-touch church leaders seem, the less influence they wield.
The Resident Analysts. Our demand for high commitment and separation from the world meets with high resistance from a certain segment of people who continue to attend church but never fully comply with the teachings and standards. Due to their family ties or friendships, they remain a part of the social fabric of the church. They may give financial support, help with building projects, or perform certain services like driving a bus or mowing a lawn. This status gives them an informal voice in the congregation. They have deep, underlying issues, however, that surface from time to time through criticism or blatant nonconformity. They analyze much of the pulpit offerings through carnal or secular opinions. Use them where you can, but continue to appeal to their conscience. Offset their influence with a powerful and persuasive ministry.
The Spiritual Singles. People with unsaved spouses have long been a part of church life, going all the way back to New Testament times. Many of them are extremely sensitive to comments, sermons, or programs that emphasize family unity or spirituality. They battle with feelings of resentment, jealousy, and even depression. Address their concerns and needs without making them feel they are second-class citizens. They don’t necessarily expect church programs to be shaped to accommodate them, but they must know that the leadership recognizes their unique problems. Consider special classes, support groups, or other activities designed to make them feel included.
Fractured Families. My kids, your kids, our kids, my ex’s kids, your ex’s kids, and maybe someone else’s kids, all living under the same roof, can create severe strain on families that impacts church life. Custody rules force many kids to spend alternate weekends with the other parent, often causing great confusion in parenting rules and undermining authority. If we stereotype family structures as being predominantly nuclear, those caught in these anomalies either feel stigmatized or irrelevant. People with formerly atypical backgrounds are more and more becoming mainstream. But what if it seems as though we are losing our Apostolic culture when we so much as acknowledge that these problems exist? Granted, today’s behaviors mess up our tidy sandbox, but we cannot change the social landscape with a wave of the hand. Even as Jesus “must needs go through Samaria,” a cultural nightmare for orthodox Jews, we must make every effort to reach people where and how we find them.
Adult Adolescents. The average age of people leaving the confines of home has crept up in recent decades. Many men and women are in their middle or late twenties before they get out on their own. Are they still a part of the youth group? Should they be expected to behave responsibly and assume positions in the church? We cannot take for granted that they simply ought to grow up without speaking specifically to their status. They are somewhere in between ministering and needing to be ministered to. This group holds tremendous potential for the present and the future. Wise leaders, in an exercise of faith, will show them respect before it has been totally earned.
The Educated. As long as the people with an alphabet of letters after their names were on the outside, we could get away with lambasting the pointy-headed intellectuals. No more. Society’s emphasis on education has put many college graduates in our congregations. It changes the way our congregations perceive us, and it must change the way we communicate with them. We will continue to insult the educated at our own peril.
High Talent/Low Commitment. Talented people who populate our pews need more than just to be upbraided for their lack of commitment. The challenges we give them must be commensurate with their superior abilities. They may be more bored than backslidden. The modern milieu of complicated living has imposed higher demands on ministering to people than ever before, forcing us to understand the nuances of leadership. Church leaders need to become students of motivation. People don’t do things today just because. They will respond if they can be motivated. Don’t leave the high-tech tractor in the barn while you stubbornly continue plowing behind the old gray mare.
The Wealthy. Monied people can be either a great blessing to a church or the source of huge problems. The reason is that, in the minds of many, money equals power. The rich may think that their judgment is worth more than that of other’s leading them or expect preferential treatment. Much could be said about dealing with the wealthy, but it should be abundantly clear to all that no one can buy influence in the church. Be grateful for larger gifts and acknowledge those who give them, but reserve honor for spiritual attributes like faithfulness, participation, and spirituality.
The Special Interest Groups. The list is long: prophecy enthusiasts, doctrine gurus, theology junkies, worship extremists, music connoisseurs, neat-freaks, standard nitpickers, finance fanatics, political maniacs, liturgical perfectionists, caring-for-the-unfortunate devotees, church building zealots and a host of other offshoots of single-issue saints. They only care about their pet peeve or personal obsession. The problem is that they often succeed in redirecting the total church program into servicing their narrow area and letting everything else go. If you can, put them in charge of their special interest; it may help scratch their itch. If not, preach moderation and the big picture. Above all, remember that the mission of the church represents the broadest objective possible. We cannot afford any diversions that will effectively shut down that mission.
Full-time Pastors and Part-time Saints. People who may not fully utilize their own ministry gifts often consider the pastor to be at their beck and call. He is the servant of the church and therefore must be kept busy. They want him to pay so-and-so a personal visit, read a book that they think will help him, watch a video or DVD that just inspired them, start a new class for an elective series, serve as an on-call counselor who is available for big or little talks 24/7, and do a myriad of other minuscule tasks that they’ve thought of. They would like to do more for God, but they just don’t have time. They have full-time jobs. Part-time saints need to be reminded of the pastor’s overwhelming responsibility to direct the total church program. The spiritual myopia of many church members today ensnares too many pastors and church leaders. They constantly have to pare down their vision to squeeze it into the narrow scope of their followers.
In-House Divorcees. Unfortunately, it is becoming more common for couples in the church to get a divorce but continue to attend the same assembly. They often sit on opposite sides of the sanctuary and either glare at or frostily ignore each other. If they have children, it compounds the problem. Over time, the rest of the congregation can usually adjust to the situation. What makes the bad situation worse, however, is if they spread their bitter complaints to others and expect them to take sides. The pastor must play the role of pastor to both of them, but he must not allow their anger to destroy the unity of the church. It is vital for a truce to be enforced, especially on church grounds. Sometimes, only the wisdom of Solomon and the leadership of the Holy Ghost can get us through these situations.
Unwed Mothers. Despite the fact that society generally accepts them without the former stigma, unwed mothers still feel awkward in church circles. The point here is not to cover all the bases but to remind us the church remains the best refuge for these girls who now have enormous complications in their lives. We have a difficult balancing act in treating the girl with love yet not appearing to condone her wrong. Further, we must be extremely careful not to shun one girl for an unwanted pregnancy and then accept another because of her family connections or other circumstances that look like raw favoritism. If we are truly to validate our stand against abortion, we must be prepared to shoulder the alternative with love and forgiveness.
Societal Misfits. Felons, parolees, AIDS victims, social disease carriers, and sexual predators are becoming increasingly common in our society, but due to our emphasis on outreach to jails, prisons, and persons with addictions, we are seeing more of them in our churches. In addition, homosexuals, transvestites, and transgender persons may indeed be sitting on our pews, sometimes without the knowledge of church leaders. One of the major concerns pastors have is preserving the family atmosphere of the church and making parents feel secure in bringing their children. At the same time, we have a moral and scriptural obligation to minister to people who have gone to the depths of sin. We do have to guard against predators who come among us to exploit children and vulnerable persons. I personally think the pastor needs to inform a number of people in the congregation about a potential problem so they can help him keep an eye out for suspicious situations. If ever we needed the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we need it now.
This article “Who Are These People?” was excerpted from the book “The View from the Back of the Pulpit” written by J. Mark Jordan. It may be used for study and research purposes only.