Preparing for the Shift

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Incoming Lewis Center Director Doug Powe says that demographic shifts will bring increased diversity to the neighborhoods around most churches in the coming decades. Rather than simply ignoring changes, churches can prepare for this shift by being in conversation with new neighbors, risking new ministry initiatives, and making room at the table for new voices.


Depending on what census report you read, the United States is headed toward non-whites being the majority population sometime between 2040 and 2050. Of course, this does not include the various other ways we measure diversity in the United States. Whether it is race, age or some other form of diversity, many of us recognize that the neighborhoods around us will probably shift in the near future. What does this shift really mean for our congregations? Do we simply stop doing worship and ministry in the current fashion so that we can be prepared for the future?

Starting a new ministry with the new individuals in the neighborhood is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking.

The truth is congregations and particularly mainline congregations have not done well at adapting as the culture has changed. This is why a number of congregations look up one day and realize they no longer resemble their neighborhoods. Most of the people in the congregation drive in to the church and have no connection to those in the neighborhood. A shift occurred and the congregation was not prepared for it. Whether it is 2020, 2025, or some other time in the future, many of the neighborhoods where congregations reside will be experiencing a shift.

Here are three suggestions to help your congregation honor the work that is currently taking place with an eye to the future.

1. Start conversations with new neighbors.

We cannot be afraid to engage those who are different from us even when there is a language barrier. In fact, the barrier can be an opportunity to find ways to dialogue and learn from one another. Too often when individuals who are different from us move into our neighborhood, we make assumptions about why they will not want to connect with us. Our assumptions may be true. Our assumptions also may be false. And if we do not actually seek to be in conversation with our neighbors we will never know. The beauty in starting a conversation is that it does not require a congregation to stop what it is currently doing.

2. Take risks.

The fear of failure continuously haunts congregations. Whenever a new idea comes up, there is always that one person who reminds everyone, “We tried it before, and it did not work.” This does not mean that we did not learn from our past efforts. It also does not mean we should not seek to try something again or to try something new.

Starting a new ministry with the new individuals in the neighborhood is a risk, but it is a risk worth taking. The key is starting a ministry with people and not for people. When we start a ministry with those in the community, they actively participate in forming it. While this may alter what we currently do, it does not do so in a way that negates who we are as a congregation.

3. Make space for new voices.

This can be the biggest challenge for congregations. It is one thing to talk with individuals and do ministry outside of the congregation, but to make space for those individuals inside the congregation seems like a huge sacrifice. One of the ways in which we live out our Christian calling is by making room for others to take the journey with us. This does not mean we give up everything that has made our journey meaningful, but it does mean we are willing to make room at the table for others who may expand the way we see and do things. Certainly, of all the suggestions, this one may alter what we have done and how we have done it.

I do not know if the pundits are right about the rate in which our culture is shifting. I do know that congregations have typically not fared well when dealing with shifts. Shifts will continue to happen in many of our neighborhoods. We have an opportunity to start conversations, take risks, and make space for others so that our congregations can find a balance between continuing practices that have been formative and connecting with others. Shifts do not have to impact us negatively if we are preparing for them.


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About Author

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC.


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