I recently picked up the book “Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction.” The cover is a person in a midflight bungee jump. I didn’t make it far into the pages; the content wasn’t worth wading through the author’s snarky disdain of Boomers. But the cover stuck with me. The picture accurately represents the way Generation X (now age 29 to 49) does business. We are innovative and entrepreneurial. We like to take risks -- which can be good, because in the economy that we landed in, risks are often in order.
It’s not only true in the business world, but also in the church. We are in the midst of a strained employment situation. The median Sunday morning attendance in my denomination is 65. The average age is over 60. Many of our congregations have not reached out well to Generation X or the Millennials. We haven’t beefed up our outreach to a new generation, but instead have cut back the ministries that mean most to them: associate positions and campus ministries. Churches that once employed a solo pastor now look toward part-timers or lay pastors to fill pulpits. There are fewer jobs for us, but our callings persist.
What will we do? We’re willing to strap on the bungee cord. We can continue to find ways to welcome younger folks and immigrant communities into our denominations (people of color will be the majority in my daughter’s generation). Some congregations will turn around; many will close. We can become creative and wise with the property and money that these congregations leave behind. We will need innovative people who are willing to take chances and start new communities. Of course, every generation has these sorts of people, but Generation X is full of them.
I hang out with an imaginative crowd of people who are fiercely loyal to our denominations, but can become frustrated with church-as-usual. Recently I helped to host an ecumenical gathering where we talked about the future of the church, including bi-vocational ministries, unauthorized ministries and how to raise funding outside of our current structures. 75 participants were in their thirties -- no surprise, there.
We didn’t spend a lot of time complaining, but there was unease. We see congregations raising $600,000 to refurbish the pipe organ when most of us can’t hear the difference between pipes and digital. Meanwhile the church cuts funding they give to the soup kitchen. We become frustrated as members spend two million dollars to rearrange the pews in the sanctuary while the homeless sleep on their steps. We watch as endless expenditures go to ensure a cathedral-like structure continues to stand, even though there are only thirty-five people worshiping in it.
Is this sustainable? As we ponder the potential changes to come, will we need to imagine our callings differently? Is bi-vocational ministry the future? We look to colleagues in low-income communities and learn how many of them have pastored and worked at the same time for years. We want to follow the way of Jesus and we know that doesn’t always mean a comfortable life. We are willing to risk it all; to stand on the edge of that cliff, with that bungee cord tied to our ankles.
Courageous as my colleagues are about the future, I want to plead with them: Don’t be so quick to give up a fair wage, insurance and pension. People fought long and hard to make sure we have them, and we want the poor in our communities to have them, too. If we cannot have justice in our own house, how can we fight for it in our communities?
Plus, there are huge inequities already. Listen to our immigrant colleagues: they are not always so keen about their bi-vocational callings and many of them are quick to point out the inequities in our existing system, reminding us that those who end up with lower wages are often women and people of color.
As we creatively think about the future, we need to come back from the edge of the cliff a bit, and not be so quick to create ministries where we cannot feed our families. We can become innovative about salary distribution and call for fairness rather than more sacrifice, because too often those disadvantaged in the past will be the same ones to sacrifice in the future.
Let’s be willing to strap on the bungee cord -- if faithfulness calls for that -- but let’s consider the implications before we take the plunge.