Recent trends in U.S. mainline denominations explored during third Theologian-in-Residence lecture session
Changes in what constitutes “church” for many in the United States and what this means for mainline denominations was the focus Tuesday of the third session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College.
The Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), addressed the question of the future of mainline denominations in a changing society during the third and concluding session of the 2011 Theologian-in-Residence series, co-sponsored by Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College.
“God is doing something in the church, and we have to be open to it,” Parsons said. “We are not being asked to change the core of who we are, but maybe how we look at it.”
The Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order uses the word “new” several times in describing the work of Jesus in the life of a Christian and the church. “We are made new in Jesus and are part of this new thing God is doing,” Parsons said.
While “church” for most Presbyterians and other mainline Protestants involves a traditional church building and a shared knowledge of its history, which is not what it means for a growing number of Christians in America.
More and more people are attending services at multiple places, he said, and people are not exclusively loyal to a particular denomination as in the past, choosing a church based on what is of value to them. The physical location of church is also changing as an increasing number of people are attending services in places such as storefronts and homes.
While mega-churches will always be a part of the religious landscape, a growing trend among young people is a move toward more intimate worship settings with a small group of people, he continued.
Parsons also shared information from surveys about why people join or leave a church. The primary reasons people join involve religious and moral beliefs, the religious services and style of worship, personal spiritual search and life-cycle changes such as marriage. The primary reasons that people leave a church involve spiritual need not being met or personal struggles with faith.
Churches need to focus on what keeps people coming, such as worship services, Parsons said. Churches sometimes have a mentality of searching for new members who will save the church and continue its growth. “We need always to remember that the job of savior has already been taken and that the church is supposed to be offering that message of salvation,” he said.
Parsons said two essential fears face congregations - the fear of too much change or too little change. Churches need to be willing to take some risks to grow, he said.
Noting surveys that indicate a majority of church members are open to change, Parsons encouraged congregations to honor what has been done in the past and what people have contributed to the church as they look at moving forward.
A way to get everyone in a congregation involved is to discuss where members see the church going in fifty years and then working backward in planning to reach the goal, he suggested.
One of the duties of the Session in the Presbyterian Church is to teach church members how to talk about their faith with others. Parsons encouraged church elders to be seen sharing their faith or part of the worship service, which would give members encouragement and confidence to share their faith as well.