Political pundits suggest that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both have an unwavering base of about 30 to 40% of possible voters. Without expanding their base, it will be impossible for either to win. And yet, it is easier and more profitable to continue to speak to the base, to, in effect, preach to the choir.
It is easier because one can automatically engender enthusiasm and raucous support. The adulation makes politicians feel good about themselves. It is also generally profitable as support is assured.
But playing it safe by preaching to the choir cannot be the church’s missional strategy.
As America increasingly becomes a post-Christian society, as the default position for most Americans becomes no faith rather than faith, DIY spirituality rather than the traditional church, preaching to the choir is a long-term recipe in futility. As church members age and church pews empty it is essential that the church adopt a missional strategy of expanding its base.
This requires paying attention to the coming generation, to younger potential members. A quick glance here and the extent of the problem becomes self-evident. About 40% of young people identify as “religiously unaffiliated,” the proverbial “religious nones.” An even closer examination shows that of this 40%, 78% or over three-fourths are coming from those who grew up in the church. And as these young people marry and have children, it is unlikely that they will return to the church of their youth. To put it bluntly, those most informed about the church are exactly those who are most alienated from it. The church would do well to simply reverse this situation—to stop digging its own grave.
But in spite of these ominous statistical indicators, there is a silver lining in this dark cloud. Young people who tend to be disaffected from traditional religion and the church, are uniquely open to faith and spirituality. Many have a framing, not a faith problem. They are resistant to the either/or framing and the closed-fisted certitude of many in the church community. Yet when faith is presented as an addition to their spiritual longings, framed in both/and categories, and presented with an open-handed tone of exploration, their knee-jerk resistance is reduced. Thus there is a growing number of young people who are those who hold to a “spiritualized secularity.” They are basically secular in their lives and attitudes, but with the significant caveat that they remain open to a larger spiritual world and reality. They eschew New Atheism’s “world without windows.” They live instead in a porous world with cracks in the transcendent ceiling where yet unidentified light streams in. They live with the fear of missing out and their spiritual longings, variously expressed in justice, beauty, love, and spirit, provides the onramps for meaningful conversation and an expanded potential audience.
But as long as churches fall back on the safe framing of “we need to take a stand,” rather than the open invitation of “let’s take a walk,” the church will continue to preach to the choir.
There are certainly younger preachers who are aware of this needed shift. I recently attended a church in Portland where this was the case. They are able to preach in a manner that respects the cross-pressured nature of belief today. And when the tone changes, the frame is adjusted, and the invitation to pilgrimage made, these are churches that are growing and expanding their millennial and Gen Z members.
Is this work harder? Is it riskier? Certainly it is, but the long-term sustainability and survival of the church is ultimately dependent on it. Now is not a time for hand-wringing, but seizing the opportunity. Rarely has there been a time more fraught with spiritual opportunity. Rarely has the church been in fact its worse enemy. But this too can change as we learn to address audiences other than the choir.
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