For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘tribal church

The Multigenerational Congregation: Meeting the Leadership Challenge, by Gil Rendle, Alban Institute, 2002.

I heard most of the material in this book at a one-day workshop led by Gil Rendle, offered by the Center for Congregations a few years back. On the heels of reading Tribal Church, I wanted to review the material here for a different perspective on the same challenge.

Rendle’s key observations are two-fold:

1) Many contemporary congregations are divided not only by age but by tenure of membership.

He describes a “bi-modal” congregation, which is full of members who have been there more than 20 years and less than 10 years, with very few who have joined 10-20 years ago. These congregations have two radically different groups operating within them, with few “bridge people” to navigate between their differences.  They are usually divided by the typical pre-boomer (GI) vs. post-boomer watershed hallmarks (group vs. individual identity, deferred pleasure vs. instant gratification, assumption of sameness vs. difference). Both groups are active within congregations.

One of the most interesting observations of this part was the distinction between the spirituality of place vs. the spirituality of journey. This was new to me, and very insightful. Quoting Robert Wuthnow, Rendle says that, in times of stability, people build dwellings and places that connect to the sacred. In times of instability, the sacred is and must be portable and moving. For members of the WWII generation, life has been stable and settled; therefore, their spirituality is stable and settled–they build places where the sacred dwells, like churches and rituals that contain the sacred. For the Boomers and subsequent generations, we live in an unstable world and celebrate a spirituality of journey. For us, God is in the pilgrimage rather than the place.

I realized that I have been preaching almost exclusively to the spirituality of journey, having really had no conception of a spirituality of place. I have several holy places that mean something to me, and I revisit in search of God–but that’s not the same thing, because they are just oases on the spiritual journey. Rendle’s insights helped me see spirituality rather than just stubbornness and tired tradition in people’s connection to our stained glass windows, liturgical garb and Christmas decorations.

2) In a world that continually segments people into increasingly specialized and individualized markets, the church is unique because it is not a “pure market” environment.

What a blessing! Rendle praises the inherent, unavoidable friction that is present when you have two such different groups trying to work together and live together in a church. Increasingly, television programs, books, methods of communication, clothing, movies, restaurants and other cultural institutions are targeted to a “pure market” of like-minded, similiar-aged and experienced people, “people like me.” Most mainline churches are not pure markets, because they are composed of people with multiple political opinions, incomes, educational levels, neighborhoods and even races. Friction is inevitable, but a sign of health and growth in a congregation.

I must say, this multigenerational experience is one of the things I value most about life in the congregation. I am grateful to Rendle for the clear, concise explanation of the systems and perspectives at work. I will be contemplating the difference between a spirituality of place and a spirituality of journey in my next sermon series.

Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, by Carol Howard Merritt. The Alban Institute, 2007.

I used to be highly intrigued by authors and scholars who sought to define, categorize and understand my generation. I think I always wanted to know if I fit, to see myself in a new mirror, to determine if my personality is a non-conformist quirk or just part of my age-bracket territory. Now that I have settled comfortably into my mid-30s, I am less concerned with these personal expressions and more interested in professional insights about how we will reach out as a church to welcome other people in my generation.

Merritt’s book promised just that sort of insight. The title alone, Tribal Church, made me think that she would lay out an elaborate twist on being and behaving as a church that would connect with other 20s and 30s. While I did not leave the book completely dissatisfied, I was disappointed that there was far more time spent cataloging the experiences of people in their 20s and 30s, and less time spent describing (even anecdotally) the way the church might look for them.

Merritt’s look at life in your 20s and 30s provides great insight for pastoral concerns and community needs that will certainly be insightful to any church leader seeking to reach out to this generation. Rather than the classic approach of the “Me” generation or the cynical “Generation X,” she more accurately talks about the struggles of two-income parenting, student loan debt, parental care, stereotypes about lazyness, and the changing nature of work due to technology and contract labor. In the context of ministry, she talks about the need for community connections and the difficultly forming friendships and tribes. She does an excellent job with this–but it all felt like old news to me. Perhaps that is because of all those other books I have read on the same topic, or perhaps she just describes what I already know, because it’s my life!

I wanted more prescription and less description from Tribal Church. What does a tribe really look like? What does a tribal church look like? How can leaders support the formation of tribes? Or can they? Merritt describes several ideas for informal connections and ministries that mainline churches can offer to people in their 20s and 30s, but they are mostly anecdotal. I want more.

However, I think the reality is that most of my clergy colleagues, who are 20-40 years older, have absolutely no idea and no accurate portrait of life in my generation. In my regular interactions with them, they have no concept of life with two professional working spouses, of the constancy of geographic moves and the separation from extended family, of seminary debt and breastfeeding and technology, and even of the loneliness and lack of friendships. This book makes a great contribution if it is read by those older leaders with an open mind and heart. I can imagine myself lending this book out to lots of (older) clergy colleagues and citing it in church meetings when we are making programming decisions for our future.

For me, the most helpful take-away from the book was the perspective that less is more, when it comes to church programming. It’s what I have secretly believed (and practiced) for a long time–but it goes against conventional wisdom. When children and parents are already overscheduled, the last thing they need is another church activity to overwhelm them. What they need is a space to be a family together, activities that engage all of them in quiet and reflection, in service and in sharing. A simple time to eat together and make friends across generations is a rare gift in today’s hectic world. This is what the church can offer people in their 20s and 30s, far more than glossy bulletins and contemporary music. Merritt covers this in far greater depth, including the challenges (even from my generation) in bucking conventional wisdom on church programs.

Tribal Church is strong in its description and depiction of life as a 20- or 30-something today. Will we listen to the description? How will we respond?

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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