Most people can carry a casual conversation with a young adult. If that seems like a challenge in your congregation, check out the first part of this blog Relationships: A Millennial Perspective.
How about discussing values and faith beliefs with that younger generation? It’s accurate to say “times have changed.” In many parts of the United States, it’s no longer assumed that people go to worship every week. This makes conversations about faith challenging –but not impossible.
As a congregational consultant and millennial, here’s what I think you should know about millennials and faith.
We value spirituality and group connection. Contrary to statistics declaring the decline of religion in America, millennials do care about spirituality. It just looks different. Consider the Harvard Divinity study How We Gather. Thriving millennial movements like Crossfit and The Dinner Party draw upon common elements: community, personal and social transformation, purpose finding, creativity and accountability.
Action step: Evaluate which of those elements your congregation does well. Practice talking about those benefits and invite potential newcomers.
Value us through hospitality. I appreciate worship services that allow casual clothes and free coffee. It’s not about the cool leader in jeans or the best local brew. It’s about inviting us to come as we are. If it’s between wearing jeans and not showing up, it’s better to have us show up in jeans.
Action step: Take time to evaluate the new visitor experience. This list of 50 Ways to Welcome New People will help. While staying true to your congregation’s culture, eliminate unnecessary discomfort for visitors.
We are likely to question faith and require a safe space to do that. Rather than accepting doctrine or marketing, young adults prioritize exploration and personal experiences to determine their beliefs. This allows for rich, yet messy, thinking. Author of The New Copernicans Dr. John Seel explains this well. I highly recommend checking out his book.
Action step: Practice active listening and humility to prioritize relationships. This is especially important when the other person doesn’t share your beliefs. Celeste Headlee’s TEDTalk will help you brush up on conversation skills. Once you build a trusting space, it becomes easier to dialogue about faith.
The purpose of youth ministry is to foster the personal development of faith, theology and relationships for young people ages 6th-12th grades. This usually happens through a variety of lessons, games, resources and relationships. But how do you know if your youth group is hitting the mark?
The Center for Congregations has worked with more than 60 congregations to create vibrant youth ministries. Here’s what we discovered about the most successful congregations.
Effective Youth Ministries
• Devote financial and human resources as a priority to nurture young people.
• Equip youth to use their faith as a lens for making life plans and decision-making.
• Incorporate young people into congregational leadership and the planning process.
These larger goals will likely take time and decisions from your leadership. Below are small ways to strengthen your youth ministry.
Small Changes, Big Impact
You can make subtle changes to integrate youth into the fabric of your congregation. Recruit adult volunteers to connect with the youth and build intergenerational relationships. Allow the youth to step into meaningful and appropriate roles of responsibility. That could be mowing the lawn, assisting in worship or serving in the nursery. Small changes over time will help youth ministry become a natural part of your culture.
Many elements make you the person you are. You are shaped by your race, your geographic location, and your genetic structure. Your personality is formed by your family, your friends, and the choices you make along the way. You are influenced by education, social affiliations and friendships.
All of us are formed by the company we keep. The company we keep includes the congregation you attend. Whether you are aware of it or not, the activities of your congregation create certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make you who you are. In this way, your congregation has formative power.
I was reminded of the importance of being part of a religious community when a clergy person described a project happening in his congregation. He told me about a booklet being produced by the staff called Rule of Life. The Rule of Life is a guidebook outlining what it means to be part of the congregation.
The pastor says, “We want to encourage people to live a certain way of life.” Part of the guidebook is written as a catechism with answers to be learned and recited. Other parts of the guide describe specific practices in which one participates as a member of the congregation: at noon every day we are going to pray this Psalm.
If you read Psalm 23 every day, that Psalm is going to become part of who you are. The virtue of trust represented in the lines of the Psalm will more likely become part of your heart, mind and soul.
What elements are most formative in a congregation?
Of course, it depends on the particular congregation. I have observed and experienced the following activities having a positive impact on adherents:
- Testimony, telling the story of their lives
- Religious practices, particularly worship, prayer, singing, study of scripture, and rites of passages or sacraments
- Reflection on practice: not just doing things but thinking about their impact with others
- Relationships including across generations
- Liminal experiences: pilgrimages, mission trips, cross-cultural experiences, spiritual retreats
Here is an exercise to consider doing with a congregational board, team or class.
Remember a time when a congregational experience formed or reinforced a positive attribute in you. Write down the experience. Take turns sharing the stories out loud. Listeners are invited to ask open, curious questions to enhance group reflection. What themes are evident? What further growth might the congregation support?
Center for Congregations CRG Director Aaron Spiegel spoke with Gerardo Martí about his recent CRG guest blog post. Gerardo is a professor, researcher and author of Latino Protestants in America. Below are highlights of their conversation.
Aaron: What are the primary motivators for American Latinos moving from Catholicism to Protestantism?
Gerardo: Roman Catholic observers have long been aware of what has been labeled “the defection” of Latinos away from Catholicism to Protestantism. It isn’t new. The esteemed Catholic sociologist Andrew M. Greely documented mass defections in the late 1980s. When pressed for an explanation, he speculated that the appeal for Latinos switching to evangelicalism was based in their upward economic mobility: Protestant churches were potent symbols of middle-class respectability. Current research is not willing to posit such massive changes to a single determining factor like this.
It is also important to note that more recent immigrants from Central and South America arrive into the United States already Protestant. That means more Protestant churches are now available to join. These same Latinos may have found themselves in Catholic churches in the past, but now more immigrants find (and are willing to start) local churches based on Protestant beliefs and liturgy.
Also significant, we cannot ignore the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse among priests that has hung over the American Catholic church, which has disillusioned many to leave Catholicism. Furthermore, many find it difficult to relate to priests in America, clergy who are less likely to be of Hispanic ancestry in comparison with local Latino Protestant pastors who tend to be indigenous, speaking similar dialects, often coming from the same region and sharing similar cultural experiences.
Additionally, our research finds the pursuit of more intimate and more intense spiritual experience to be important. In our interviews, Latinos say they were eager for the deeper spiritual nourishment they discovered in Protestant churches, finding their priests to be dismissive of their desires and questions, while discovering excitement and zeal in a local “Christian” church. More than one respondent simply said, “I found God here.”
Finally, the greater independence of many Protestant churches translates into greater organizational agility and adaptability to their local environment. Even when a particular church is unable to change, it is increasingly likely that Latinos can find a newer church designed to appeal to new sensibilities. This means that the competition among churches is not just between Catholic and Protestant but among Protestants themselves.
Aaron: You stated in your blog post that Pew Research reported that half of all American Latinos will be Protestant by 2030. Why is this significant?
Gerardo: The dramatic increase in Latino Protestantism is largely unanticipated. Considering that Latinos in America are stigmatized as “foreigners” in far too many places in the United States (as is evident in our political controversies regarding illegal immigration), this may result in a renegotiation of both the nature of Protestantism in America as well as the understanding of American Latinidad.
For example, Protestantism is traditionally the mainstream culture of white Americans, serving as a base for promoting privilege and status. The increase of Latino American Protestants may more fully emphasize the racialization of “white Christianity.”
Also, religion among Latinos has often been assumed to be steeped in Catholicism. Approaching Latino religiosity apart from Catholicism can be disorienting for religious leaders who simply have not known Latinos as Protestants. In addition, because the broad Latino community retains strong social and cultural ties to Catholicism, the increase of Protestants can be the source of tensions among family and friends when approaching the nature of the sacred through life-cycle events like weddings and funerals and church-based social events (festivals, holidays, parties, etc.) intended to reach larger social networks.
Aaron: Are American Catholic leaders trying to figure out why they aren’t “automatically” getting Latinos? Is there something “to be done” to change the trend?
Gerardo: All churches whose ancestry are Anglo-European (as well as Asian, i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) tend to lump all “Latino” ancestries together, and Catholic parishes often segregate congregations within a single church to serve particular ethnic groups. However, even when services are conducted or translated into Spanish, the idioms, illustrations, pronunciations, and vocabularies between Hispanic groups can be vastly different. Appointing a Mexican-American minister does not automatically create connections to Cuban, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran people in their neighborhoods. Similarly, relational connections — the family and friends people most likely lead new guests in their churches — do not necessarily overlap between various Latino ethno-racial groups.
Beyond the challenge of outreach to different cultural groups within the general category of Latino, all churches are challenged to be self-reflective regarding their willingness to be truly hospitable to groups that are socially distant from their own. I would caution church leaders against merely setting up another segregated ministry. While I commend congregations that support separate Latino ministries, it is worth considering further the extent a congregation can more fully welcome and incorporate Latinos (and other racial/ethnic groups) into the ongoing ministries of the congregation. While pastor and paid staff may be friendly initially, the successful incorporation of Latinos into obviously non-Latino settings takes a deliberate effort. Lay leaders and regular members must be willing to take into their lives new relationships.
Leaders are challenged to evaluate their own ministry: How wide are the arms of love that can be extended in your congregation? How welcoming is your church to “the alien, the stranger, and the foreigner”? Does your church have intentional boundary-crossers who regularly reach out to those who are unfamiliar and culturally distinct?
The Catholic Church shows pastoral commitment and concern for Latinos, yet the Church would benefit from even more aggressive outreach toward recruitment of Latino men and women from a variety of ancestral backgrounds for lay and full-time ministry.
Aaron: Some readers may associate Protestant with mainline denominations, yet you imply high numbers of Latinos connected with evangelical and Pentecostal movements. Is there a breakdown and explanation of the divisions within Protestantism?
Gerardo: To avoid confusion, our research uses the label “Protestantism” to signify all religious orientations that base themselves from the stream of congregational movements after the Reformation. Today, the data on Latino Protestants captures three distinct groups: Pentecostal – characterized by an emphasis on healing, tongues, and related ministries centered on the infusion of the Holy Spirit; Evangelical – non-Pentecostal churches that emphasize preaching, bible study, adult baptism, and emotive worship; and Mainline – churches with affiliations to historic denominational structures like Methodism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, etc.
In terms of proportional representation, the most recent data indicate that the total population of Latino Protestants consists of a little more than one-third being Pentecostal, a little more than one-third Evangelical, and a little less than one-third Mainline. The dip in Mainline affiliation may have to do with the historic absence of significant Latino membership among these churches and the lack of educational credentials qualifying Latino leaders for ordination. In addition, it has been more difficult to establish new Mainline congregations at the pace at which Latino-centered Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations are being established, especially with the added requirements assumed for ordination in Mainline churches.
Aaron: Did the Latino community bring their high commitment and participation in church with them as immigrants or is this an American Latino phenomenon?
Gerardo: We are still working to understand the exceptionally high rates of religious intensity among Latino Protestants. Certainly, part of their congregational fervor has to do with the momentum of church centrality and involvement already cultivated in their countries of origin. Even so, Latino Pentecostals and Evangelicals are generally much more involved in their church communities than those from the Mainline. In addition, most Latino-centered Protestant churches are smaller and therefore require higher involvement among volunteers and lay leaders to sustain their ministries over time.
Aaron: Are there unique challenges for Latino churches that aren’t being addressed by denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations? How can organizations like the Center for Congregations be most helpful to the Latino community?
Gerardo: The challenges for sustaining the continued vitality of the Latino Protestant churches in America are many. They include:
Availability and affordability of pastoral training: Latino Protestants mirror their secular counterparts in having lower levels of college attendance and graduation. Therefore, the great majority of Latino pastors committed to ministry lack the educational background necessary to be admitted to seminaries. Consequently, they also lack the means to afford classes and study materials. In response to this situation, a variety of local Bible institutes have emerged, and many seminary and divinity schools in the United States have made generous arrangements to accept Bible institute credit to provide a pathway for graduate education. In addition, some larger churches and theological schools are expanding to provide training in ministry explicitly oriented toward Latinos. Denominations, judicatories, and parachurch organizations can further fund, mentor, and organizationally bridge opportunities for more formal pastoral training.
Financial pressures for salaries, rent, buildings, technology, and ministry infrastructure: Because Latino ministries do not usually include contributions from wealthy donors, church leaders are constantly pressed to meet the financial requirements to build ministry programs and serve the needs of their people. Even when aligned with larger denominational structures, the stories we hear from leaders in the field reveal how difficult it can be to obtain funding. Latino leaders believe priorities for Latino ministry to be quite low. Unfortunately, Latino ministries also suffer from the stigma and prejudice that is all too common among white-dominant communities. Latinos are sidelined, with their issues being accorded less importance. With Latino persistent population growth, the infrastructure for Latino ministry is an area of investment worth considering for the future of Christianity in America.
Latinos administratively lumped together, often with other “ethnic” ministries: Latino groups desire to have their own distinctive pastoral and congregational needs met. Yet lack of understanding or poor administration can often leave all “ministries of color” combined with little regard for significant distinctions in their histories and needs. In one organization, we found that all ethno-racial ministries, also joined with women’s ministries, placed under a single department head. Latino migrations are complicated, resulting in practical pastoral differences. With some reflection, church leaders would quickly realize that such administrative streamlining leaves important differences ignored and therefore unaddressed.
Absence of respect or authority in decision making within larger structures and networks: Latino leaders bring a great deal of passion and experience to their ministries. We have met many who began their ministries while still teenagers. Yet, their ministry experiences are often ignored and their input rarely sought. These Latino leaders feel like perpetual guests when participating in larger structures and networks of ministry, leaving their own distinctive perspectives and concerns ignored. Similarly, too few Latino pastors and consultants have attained status as “experts,” leaving a highly skewed and incomplete perspective coming from the few who have made it into elite spaces of influence. While non-Latino leaders should make an effort to be more inclusive, the few Latino church leaders with influence should not hoard their visibility and make an equally strong effort to expand the public influence of their colleagues and peers.
Latinos are firmly established in the American spiritual landscape. Attention to their spiritual development should be a priority. Of course, with commitment, planning, and foresight, the challenges listed above can be addressed with practical initiatives centered on further development of pastoral leadership. I trust that concerted effort, consensual planning, and a host of brilliant minds can certainly meet these challenges moving forward.
Tags: Religion In America, Contemporary Trends, Latino, Latinex, Multi Cultural, Ethnic, Diversity Race, Protestantism, Catholicism
Latino Protestants are experiencing remarkable growth, according to Pew Research Center. Pew reports that by 2030, half of all Latinos in America will be Protestant. While some gather in Latino megachurches – especially in the southwest – containing thousands of members, the great majority attend smaller congregations, often characterized by part-time pastors, relational intimacy formed through networks of friends and family, and a high proportion of lay volunteers. Often unseen, these smaller congregations are remarkably significant to the lives of millions of Latinos in America.
Religion is important to daily life
Overall, Latino Protestants are characterized by high levels of religious commitment. For example, the book American Grace by Robert Putman and David Campbell reports that 85 percent of Latino Evangelicals indicate that religion is very important in daily life. Their intensity is intertwined with their church involvement. According to Pew Research Center, Latino Protestants tend to be more religiously active, attending church services and small groups more often than their Catholic counterparts. Attending church every week is a far greater priority among Latino evangelicals than Latino Catholics: 62 percent of Latino Protestants attend worship on a weekly basis, compared to 40 percent of Latino Catholics. The most religiously intense Latino Protestants are evangelical (71 percent), Pew reports.
Latino Protestants also spend a lot of time each week involved in congregational events. The majority of both Latino Pentecostals (70 percent) and evangelicals (63 percent) spend at least three hours a week in church activities, compared to mainline (36 percent) and Catholic (32 percent). About one-third of Latino Pentecostals indicated that they spent more than seven hours per week engaged in church-related activities, states Norman Eli Ruano in his dissertation “The Holy Ghost Beyond the Church Walls: Latino Pentecostalism(s), Congregations, and Civic Engagement.” That means that in addition to attending weekly worship services, they spend more time than Latino Catholics participating in afternoon meals, midweek studies, lay leadership meetings, cleanup and repairs around the building, practicing music, volunteering with youth, and much more.
Of weekly activities, Pew Research reports that group prayer or Bible study are especially important: 48 percent of Latino Protestants attend a group at least weekly. In contrast, only 17 percent of Latino Catholics indicated the same level of regularity. In other words, Latino Protestants have more than twice the rate of involvement in congregational activities – a powerful energizer for generating religious commitment and a significant resource for use by pastoral leadership.
What makes churches so central to the spiritual lives of Latino Protestants?
In his book Latinos in the United States, David T. Abalos’ suggests cultural connections make for strong bonds among Latino Protestants. At least in some cases, Latino Protestantism gains adherents by offering an ethno-religious haven. For example, many of the pastors of their churches are Latino, speak Spanish, share similar hardships, and bring a more egalitarian attitude to governance. In contrast, Latinos Catholics are less likely to have a priest with a Latino heritage. Moreover, being regular community with other Latino Protestants offers comfort and comradery. In this interpretation, Latino Protestantism congregational life offers an ethnic familiarity and consolation in their Latinidad largely absent in many Catholic churches.
In contrast, Latino Protestants may not feel as welcome in non-Latino churches, which leads them to more readily accept invitations from friends and family into Latino-centric churches. This is especially likely in a political climate where Latinos are seen as illegal and unwanted foreigners, despite the majority of Latino Protestants being legal citizens and born in America.
Immersion in the church
According to our interviews for the book Latino Protestants in America, for many their immersion in Protestant churches is due to practices that differentiate these churches from Catholicism: specifically, more emotionally-immersive worship, greater encouragement of lay leadership, and multiple opportunities for women’s and youth’s direct involvement.
Yet another important reason for high levels of church participation may be a consequence of their conversion to Protestantism—sociologically, converts have higher rates of congregational activities when compared to lifelong Protestant Latinos.
Finally, while all congregations depend on members volunteering their time as a resource, churches that are financially strained often create multiple, meaningful opportunities to sustain the ministry. Volunteer service directly saves money on hiring staff or outsourcing services. Moreover, service commitments, attendance at activities, and religious intensity all reinforce each other.
In the end, Latino Protestant congregations capture and channel the religiosity of Latino Protestants, an intensity that is a defining cultural ethos of their churches. Given continuing evidence of their sustained growth, the forces contributing to the centrality of church among Latino Protestants is likely to remain for some time.
Author’s note: Latino Protestants are mainline, evangelical, and Pentecostal. It has been crucial to our work that leaders do not define them as mostly or even dominantly Pentecostal, and folding Pentecostal and Evangelical together create its own analytical problems. In writing about existing research, there is a difficulty in maintaining these distinctions because the best available work sometimes ONLY discusses evangelicals. Our work seeks to correct this, even when we use that research to provide the best overview of current dynamics as possible. We want to emphasize that in contrasting Protestants from Catholics, we are drawing attention to the many Christian orientations that exist within Protestantism and in the case of our research, in the Latino community.
In a gathering of congregational leaders, the word “millennial” enters the conversation. A wave of uneasiness settles in — judgment, honest confusion or distress. What is the future of our congregation with these young people?
As a church-going millennial and congregational consultant, I observe these conversations through a few different lenses. Here’s what you should consider.
“What if millennials are the carriers and not the cause [of cultural change].” – Mike McHargue
Thought leader Mike McHargue, voice of The Liturgists podcast and The New Copernican Series, encourages a broader perspective of our changing lifestyles and overall culture. To quote a friend, “I wasn’t born this way, glued to my phone. I didn’t choose to have a six-second attention span.”
Action step: Try withholding judgment in favor of seeking understanding. You might learn something and uncover that millennials make more sense than you thought.
We are individuals with unique stories and normal human needs. Labeling us “millennials” doesn’t even scratch the surface of who we are. We have personalities, varied hardships and defining life experiences. What we do share is an isolating, technology-driven culture. Because of this, we especially need authentic conversation and relationships.
Action step: Try getting to know us on an individual level. This step is recommended in Center staffer Wendy McCormick’s Engaging Young Adults article. My best relationships started by getting together outside of the worship building. Meet us for coffee or invite us to a sports game, a game night, lunch or a local show.
We’ll likely collaborate with you to do something. As society gets faster, our time is important. Help us use time together to further our goals and contribute to something bigger than ourselves. Giving us a meaningful role will make us feel valued and grow our commitment to the congregation.
Action Step: Ask us what we’re interested in or passionate about. Support us in making those ideas happen. Derrick Feldmann’s Social Movements For Good will help you understand social movements of this generation and what makes them successful.
As you get to know young adults, you’ll be able to spend more time together doing the life-giving activities of your congregation.
I’m having more conversations with congregations that characterize themselves as multicultural. For example, I met with a governing board of a Caucasian congregation that had recently welcomed 20 refugees from Ethiopia. A board member said, “We sing songs that are new to us.”
Another pastor called the Center for Congregations looking for resources related to talking about racial justice. I asked, “Is your congregation predominately African-American or mainly Caucasian?” She said, “We are multicultural. We are about 60% white, about 30% black, and we have others who are recent immigrants from Latin America.”
A multicultural congregation is typically racially diverse. Yet, the diversity also stretches beyond racial inclusivity. A multicultural congregation holds and seeks racial, cultural, class, generational, gender and other differences to be represented among its participants.
Those who study multicultural congregations note that when 20% percent of the participants represent the non-dominant group, the non-dominant group begins to transform the congregation in significant ways. The style of prayer changes. People learn facts they didn’t know before (“there are over 80 languages spoken in Ethiopia!). New friendships are made.
A rich congregational experience
A multicultural congregation includes a diverse range of people in attendance. More robustly, the congregation expresses its religious claims and commitments through the activities and practices of more than a single, dominant culture.
Many effective multicultural congregations become diverse because of unfolding circumstances, as opposed to deciding to become such a congregation. For example, a congregation may find itself located in a zip code with an influx of immigrants. Or a congregation might observe that the public-school district in which they reside includes students of a different race than most of its members.
Resources you can use
If you are addressing the challenges and opportunities of becoming a multicultural congregation your governing board might begin to deepen its consideration by reading and discussing some outside resources. I recommend these two – a blog titled Different Models for Multicultural Congregations and Ministries and the article Against the Current.
As your knowledge and expertise deepens, I recommend the web resource Striving Toward Multi-Ethnic Church to increase your capacity as a multicultural congregation.
Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Hayim Herring, consultant, nonprofit organizational futurist and author of Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Thanks to you and your colleague Dr. Teri Elton for introducing us to the phrase “Foresight is 20/20.” In your CRG blog, you link foresight to agility. How far into the future do you think a congregational board can think strategically about programs and purpose?
Hayim: I think at least five years and here are some reasons. The further out we think, the less accurately we’re likely to forecast. Yet, we’re also in an age of accelerating velocity of change. For example, could we imagine how quickly we’re moving from electronic wearable fitness devices to wearable medical devices, like Apple’s newest watch that has an FDA approved heart monitor? Strategic issues that leaders estimate won’t surface until another five years are likely to happen much sooner. And as congregations are often slow at planning and executing on relatively simple changes, it feels like congregations must learn to accustom themselves to look out at least five years. That way, if a change comes sooner leaders will be prepared, and if it takes longer, they will be one of those congregations that will pioneer their desired future.
As a corollary to your question, I’d like to add, “How do we develop leaders who can stay rooted in the past, look deeply into the present, and anticipate and shape the kind of congregational community that they desire?” This is deep cultural change work for a congregation, even beyond compressed strategic planning that happens every three years. It calls for developing a culture that understands that exercising foresight is now a required leadership attribute and one that should also be fostered more broadly in the congregation.
Tim: The Center in Indiana worked with a congregation a few years ago that decided not to set an annual budget. This was during a time when the town, and members of the congregation, were experiencing economic hardships. It wasn’t just that household budgets were tight, people were losing their jobs. The board decided to vote on a budget every quarter, rather than annually because they couldn’t see far enough into the future to make firm plans. They called this flexible implementation. Is something like this what you mean by agility?
Hayim: It’s very easy to play armchair organizational analyst, especially because I am literally sitting in recliner responding and not in a congregation that is making quarterly budget decisions. Clearly, their commitment to meet and review finances reflects their tremendous love and concern for their congregation – this is not work that one volunteers for to receive accolades! But from my vantage point, their approach has the potential to unintentionally accelerate the demise of a congregation. Budgeting on a quarterly basis, especially as a response to financial duress, constrains longer-term creative thinking at the time it’s needed most. It fosters a mindset of the anxiety of existing from one budget quarter to the next and crowds out time to envision a completely different kind of congregational community.
A few alternatives: in a crisis, leaders lock themselves into a room and don’t emerge until they have drafted an emergency plan with milestones that they communicate transparently to the congregation. That plan may contain any number of outcomes. Leaders might determine how to gracefully merge with another congregation or keep the community but sell and lease back the building. They could think about renting other space or meeting in people’s homes. They could seek new sources of revenue through tasteful corporate sponsorships (in the way that corporations advertise on public radio or television). The congregation might repurpose and rent space in the building that stands empty much of the week to struggling startups whose values are consistent with those of a congregation, even if they are not “religious” startups.
This congregation was fiscally responsible and clearly wanted to do right as stewards of congregational funds. But was there was a parallel working group considering out-of-the-box options? I don’t mean impossible to achieve alternatives, but ones that are at least remotely possible. If a group of leaders had been cultivated to anticipate trends, it’s possible that they might have at least mitigated this dire situation. But a congregation under extreme financial duress cannot financially cut its way out of a crisis. Renewed congregational life may happen from seeing and seizing opportunities that add meaning and purpose unavailable from other congregations or organizations, from merging with another congregation or functioning as a semi-autonomous congregation within a larger congregation, or from a bold re-envisioning of the purpose of forming a congregational community.
Tim: Hard trends become future facts. In addition to generational differences and the handling of devices as if they were human (as you note in the blog), what is another hard trend which congregational leaders might want to track?
Hayim: The Pew Research Center recently developed new typologies for categorizing Americans by religion that include provocative categories like “Spiritually Awake,” “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.” It would be very helpful for congregations to use local resources at universities to help them understand the implications of these new typologies and possible impacts that they may have on congregational participation. Another trend is moving into a mobile future, where religious services, rituals, financial payments, and tracking one’s spiritual growth are ripe for development. Returning to a theme from my last blog post, I have many questions about the impact of immersive technologies on congregational life. When individuals can use smartphones to generate a holographic image of a congregation and watch their favorite pastor preach, what will that do to their relationship with physical space and community? Will we find holiness in holograms? Perhaps most important of all, it is no longer acceptable under any circumstance for congregational leaders to enable or to cover up the actions of those who verbally demean, sexually harass, or assault another individual. That obvious religious imperative of treating all individuals as inherently worthy of dignity cannot be taken for granted.
Tim: Many congregational leaders are exploring what innovation means. In your book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, innovation is defined as an act, and entrepreneurship as an organizational state. Many in the religious sphere, and the broader non-profit sphere, are trying to understand innovation. If a group is stuck trying to define innovation, how might a group try to act into, live into innovation?
Hayim: You’re right, congregational groups can become paralyzed even by the thought of becoming innovative. After all, innovations often occur in public and even with the best of planning, there will be some glitches and congregants can sometimes respond harshly to well-intentioned efforts that flop. Here are a few suggestions on how to get “unstuck”:
- Based on years of experience, my mantra on innovation is, “think big, start small, move fast, evaluate/modify, and determine whether to close down our scale up an innovation.” Cultivate a practice of ongoing pilot programs (or betas) that are designed for learning – from success and from failure.
- Don’t go for the “low hanging fruit” because that approach doesn’t satisfy either those who are interested in fundamental innovation, or those who like things as they are, don’t want to innovate, but also want to be good team players and put forth effort for some change that they don’t support in their hearts.
- Also, look toward other places in your local community that have successfully undertaken innovation – another nonprofit, an art museum or symphony that had to engage audiences differently than in the past, or some other organization that had to reinvent all or a part of itself. Don’t only look to other congregations, but outside of the congregational world to those who share similar struggles.
Tim: Give us a glimpse into a way of congregational life which you’d love to be a part.
Hayim: The congregations to which I belong and like to work with share some commonalities. They are places in which people are kind to one another, have a broad concern for their local community, and are much more concerned about their own authenticity than what others who belong elsewhere say about them. They balance spirituality with intellectual challenge. They trust that their members can handle big ideas and grapple with difficult issues. They hold on to a reliable core mission and experiment – although it’s difficult to find congregations that have spiritual incubators to complement their ongoing offerings. I also feel that aesthetics – the thought and attention that go into the flow of services and programs, music, art, and the performance of ritual – are critically important. So much of congregational life is about a reenactment of the past that reawakens the demands of my soul, or the momentary creation of a microcosm of a better reality that motivates me to work with others to make it permanent. That intentionality and forethought of experience are much-appreciated ingredients of a congregational community.
“Foresight is 20/20” is not a typographical error. Rather, it relates to a theme that Dr. Terri Elton and I wrote about in our recent book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. Foresight is one capacity that will enable congregations to thrive in the future. The velocity of change is accelerating so swiftly that even being agile is insufficient insurance for future survival. Agility, which involves pivoting to a change, still places leaders in a reactive mode. But when leaders learn how to regularly exercise and act upon foresight, they’ll have a better chance to proactively shape the future of their congregations.
When do we invoke the phrase “20/20 hindsight?”
We do so to make sense of how we either missed an opportunity or threat. But 20/20 foresight suggests that we can turn knowledge of what is very likely to happen in the future into practices of what can be now. With 20/20 foresight, congregational leaders can focus more on igniting people’s spiritual sparks instead of “worrying about how to keep the lights on.” They’ll have a better chance at deepening and broadening their mission and positively influencing more people’s spiritual lives.
Hard trends and future facts
In our book, we described several processes that leaders can use to peer further over the horizon and anticipate potential issues, policies, and innovations. Since that time, I’ve become more familiar with Dr. Daniel Burrus, a global innovation expert and futurist, and his most recent book The Anticipatory Organization: Turn Disruption And Change Into Opportunity And Advantage. Burrus introduces two interrelated concepts for getting smart about the future: “hard trends” and “future facts.” He writes, “A hard trend is a future fact that can provide something that is very empowering: certainty. Hard trends will happen, no matter who you are…. None of us can stop hard trends from occurring, but there are ways to see them coming.” Once you’ve become better at identifying “hard trends,” you can use “future facts” to your advantage because your congregation will already be where its existing and potential constituents are.
Here are two examples of hard trends that are future facts:
These two hard trends – six generations alive at one time and a VR world – are replete with spiritual implications that anticipatory leaders could be acting upon now. For example, how do we foster ongoing intergenerational relationships where young and old engage in reciprocal learning? What happens to our innate holiness when children grow up with “parents” named Alexa and Cortana? There are few venues in our communities that are structured for ongoing interactions between young and old (and “old” means 55+!) but that’s also a great opportunity for congregations. They are theoretically ready to become spaces of intergenerational meeting, where puzzling through these issues becomes normative.
A true story to concretize this opportunity
A 14-year-old teen whose grandmother was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease raised money by crowdfunding to develop an app with AI (artificial intelligence) and facial recognition software to help her grandmother remember family members. This teen initiated conversations and sought ideas and support from caregivers, family members, and tech mentors by herself. You can read this story in Adele Peters article “A 14-Year-Old Made An App To Help Alzheimer’s Patients Recognize Their Loved Ones” from Fast Company. Given their access to multiple generations and talented volunteers, congregations could create a standing intergenerational council to harness the wisdom, technological savvy and multiple generational perspectives to address opportunities and rapid changes. Congregations also have the advantage of drawing upon inherited spiritual wisdom to weigh advantages and disadvantages of maintaining the status quo versus initiating a change.
Finding a balance
The capacity to better envision the future is admittedly difficult. Religious leaders must calibrate the balance between our inherited spiritual past and contemporary realities so that future generations will inherit a spiritual legacy. That sounds like an impossible task, but the routine act of driving a car suggested an analogy of how we already do so. When driving, we balance past, present and future because we learn when to accelerate forward and when to slow down and brake, while simultaneously looking ahead through the windshield, behind through the rearview mirror, and at our present surroundings in the side view mirrors.
As religious leaders, we bring humility to our efforts to better anticipate the future, which holds mysteries beyond our perception and imagination. On the other hand, the greatest religious leaders have been rooted in the past, looked deeply into the present, and provided a vision for the future. Speaking from the Jewish tradition, I’m inspired by a question that a first-century rabbinic sage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, asked a group of his students. “Which is the best characteristic for a person to acquire?” One student, Rabbi Shimon, said “One should learn to anticipate the future.” His response can empower us to think more about the hard trends and future facts that we can use to keep congregations vital.