Ten church models for a new generation

November 21, 2011
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I’m in a lot of conversations about why the denominational church isn’t working. In some ways, I think of our churches like a crop of corn that was planted at the same time. That field produced corn for 50 years—so much wonderful corn that many of us were fat and happy. In our abundance, we forgot to diversify and plant new fields. Now the corn is coming to the end of its season, all at the same time.

In my denomination (PCUSA), 90% of our members are white and most of them are over the age of 60. Many of our churches are rural and many of the buildings were constructed in the 1950s. After 60 years of dutiful service, the structures are too large, too inefficient, and require too much maintenance for smaller, aging members to keep up with. We're ministering in a country where younger generations are much more diverse and many of them move into urban areas. Many congregations plan to cut staff (including the pastor) and hold on to the building until there’s only one person left standing. In fact, right now, half of our churches cannot afford pastors, so it's not difficult to imagine that we might be closing them in the next 20 years. 

The crop may be coming to end of its season, but the ground is not fallow. What are some other options? What about the communities that are working? What about new communities? They tend to be small (much like our existing churches) but they often don’t have the real estate and endowments to keep them going. They have to think of other ways to create space as well as other funding sources. I’m going to list these… some are conservative, some are liberal, some have hardly any beliefs at all. I’m giving them to you as models, not because I agree with the theological content (or lack thereof), but because they’re worth exploring. 

1)   Large churches plant new communities. Using money from a large congregation and denominational funding, a church is planted. That seems to be what happens the most in our denomination, and it seems to be our trustiest default. The problem? It’s usually conservative, evangelical big-steeples who are in the planting business. If a church-planter does not fit that theological mold, she’s out of luck.

2)   Multi-cultural congregations. Often churches realize that they can’t connect with their changing neighborhoods, so they start or welcome another immigrant congregation within their existing church structure. This works best when it’s not seen as a landlord/renter relationship, but a mutual ministry.

3)   Neo-monastic communities. You can see a list of communities that are connected with the Simple Way. Missio Dei of Minneapolis is a community that I often here about. I’ve also heard Wayne Meisel of the Bonner Foundation talk about wanting to plant 45 Houses of Hospitality. I don’t know too much about this… I’m trying to set up a meeting with him… so I’ll keep you posted.

4)   Church/business hybrids. The most popular hybrid in our neighborhood is Ebeneezer Coffeehouse/National Community Church. I have also seen an emerging church community where the women (the community was mostly women) make and sell jewelry to support the church.

5)   Pastor/business hybrids. Kirk Jeffery is a pastor who is also a coffee roaster. You can learn about what he’s up to and order some coffee here. I have friends who want to follow in the monastic tradition of combining wine and beer making with ministry (if you’d like to invest in start-up costs, I can connect you!).

6)   Art churches. The Church of Craft is interesting (the video is pretty good at explaining it). They meet in an Etsy lab in Brooklyn, and different chapters have sprung up all over the country. These are churches that are formed around the knowledge that making things is often a person’s spiritual practice. There’s also Wicker Park Grace, which met in an art gallery. Creating art, poetry and music has become central to who they are as a commnity.

7)   Food churches. Many congregations are using food—farmer’s markets, local food movements, etc—to connect with the community and (in some cases) provide additional funding. You can hear Craig Goodwin talk about how his existing congregation started a farmer’s market.

8)  Non-profit/church hybrids. In a similar vein with food churches, The Common Table is a non-profit that serves food, and guests pay whatever they can afford. Western Presbyterian (the church I serve) houses Miriam's Kitchen. New members often talk about "coming upstairs." In other words, they first connected with the church through Miriam's, but then they decided to venture up the stairs on a weekend for worship. 

9)  Podcast churches. Revolution Church in NYC meets in the back of a bar. They probably can’t seat more than 50 people, but they podcast to 10,000 people. If those 10,000 people pay $10 to support the church, they have funding to keep going. Jay Bakker co-pastors the congregation, so I’m not sure if the model would work for everyone, but the model is worth mentioning.

10) Internet churches. Koinonia Congregational Church and 1PCSL (1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life) are virtual congregations on Second Life. I like these churches because in Second Life, I'm me, but taller and skinnier.

Now, you tell me. What have I left out?


Thanks, and...

Thanks, Carol. The post reminds me of this similar one by Andrew Jones from a few years back.

The Project F-M, my current community, I suppose fits most clearly as #8. I'm thinking of us, however, as sort of "campus ministry grown up a bit." Ideally, congregations, foundations, and individuals in the are will support our work with the emerging adult community. We're a ministry, a community, but maybe not "a church." 

It definitely is an exciting time for us all. As a clarifying question, however, I wonder what definition of "church" would be able to encompass all of these communities. I ask, because I struggle with that language often in my current work.

Definition of church

Thanks for pointing to the Jones article. I follow his blog, but I hadn't seen it...

The definition of "church" pierces to the heart of it. The Committee on the Nature of the Church in the 21st C is struggling with that a lot. (For those of you who don't know, that's a national committee for the PCUSA.) Right now a new church development becomes a "church" when it's self-sufficient, self-governing, and self-propogating.

To assume that churches must be self-sufficient is difficult for many reasons--mainly it doesn't really have a  solid scriptural or theological basis. It also doesn't have much merit based on tradition. I.e., most congregations now thrive because of the generosity of former generations. If most of our congregations had to start from scratch, with no building, no endowments, etc, they might have a much more difficult time.Yet, we don't think of them as "not a church."

I sense that your question is different though. And we should be wrestling with a lot of questions right now. For instance, if we are committed to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments, what does that have to do with running a coffeehouse? Is a virtual church a faithful witness to our incarnational God? Are we using technology to enhance our ministries, or is it overriding what God is calling us to do and be?

Table Fellowship Congregations

Similar, but also different, from your mention of "Food Churches" are groups of people congregating around shared food with a distinct focus on Eucharist or Eucharistic-like liturgies. I know a missionary couple who met to eat, with a specific and lovely liturgy designed specifically to be around the table, each week. The group became a strong congregation and found it was easy to invite friends even in a very secular European culture. American Evangelicalism has labelled this type of thing "small group", but I think there is real potential to it being real Church. I'm a young adult and I see this as being vital in the conversation around bringing young adults into the Church and finding space for them to be creative leaders. A Mennonite congregation that started this way, but has grown too large for homes, is The Table Fellowship: thetablefellowship.net. 

Thank you so much for

Thank you so much for pointing us to this. What a beautiful vision of what church should be!

you know us perfectly!

Yes, we are that aging, rural church, founded in 1906, on our second sanctuary now, built in 1966.  Our church is too big for us anymore.  We seat 260 people but average about 32 on a given Sunday.  

Thank you for the reminder of our ordination vow to serve with energy, enthusiasm and intelligence (or was it imagination?).  Anyhow, these are all very interesting ideas.  I am curious about whether we could do a Miriam's Kitchen kind of thing one day, since we have people on such varying incomes who hit hard times but come back later with donations when we've helped them out. 

Rev. Amy Pospichal, First Pres, Tucumcari, NM

have you looked into messy church

I found messy church when we were developing our intergenerational program this year.  http://www.messychurch.org.uk/ 

I'll tell you - if I was looking for a church, this would be a dream. Meet in the fellowship hall - have arts and crafts out with a central theme.  Everyone plays and learns together (kids and adults) and then we share a meal. 


Covenant Communities

I am a field education student working at Christ Presbyterian Church in
Martinsville, NJ (http://www.cpcmnj.org), and they are an intentionally small
community based around a covenant that each person joining the church signs.
They created it three years ago or so. They are not neo-monastic and they are
not church/business hybrids, but the church functions in some of the same ways.
The members are very mindful of their spiritual growth with a self-driven
Christian education program (much of which is based in spirituality and putting
that spirituality in to action in the community), and they support each other’s
callings which sometimes might look like a church/business hybrid. For example,
last Saturday one of the members held her children’s book launch party at the church
where that book was sold along with another book written by a different member,
several art pieces by various members, and fair trade goodies. Various other organizations
use the building, too. If I had to name this as a model, I would call it the Intentional
Covenant Community. Another example of this model is the Church of the Savior
in Washington D.C.

Thanks for the great article!

-Emily, www.fightthebees.com

I love Church of the Savior!

I love Church of the Savior! And thank you for pointing me to the ministry that's happening in Martinsville. 

I love how this discussion has made me aware of so many interesting ministries...

Organic growth within old infrastructures


Thank you for outlining this rich set and intriguing set of possibilities.  As the Buddhists say, "Let a thousand flowers bloom."  I hope all of these forms and more succeed.  However, I want to make a couple of observations.  

First, in my view, your characterization of mainline denominations as coming to the "end of its season" is problematic a best and cynical at worst.  Your depiction of the mainline church in general and the PCUSA in particular often fails to illumine the creative and generative work that is going on within these old structures.  As you probably know, Emerging Church types, such as Tony Jones, instruct creatives to flee the mainline to more avant garde forms of church.  I think such rhetoric is too binary and oppositional.  Just as I am sure that the Spirit is moving amidst emerging project churches, I am also very sure that the Spirit is moving amidst the aging infrastructure of the mainline.  

Secondly, as Dori Baker says in Greenhouses of Hope (for which you wrote a blurb) there are "green shoots" of new life peeking out from within these mainline structures.  Actually, the model of church illustrated in Greenhouses of Hope represents an alternative that I do not believe you have named.  The model of church represented there illustrates faithful and creative people who are rethinking the practices of faith to include such things as interreligious hospitality, intergenerational mission, challenging age-level hierarchies, care of younger by older, care of the earth and much more. These churches are flourishing and hearing God's call in new ways.  The ministry that is happening in these churches cannot be prescribed from denominational headquarters (or from Brian McLaren's books for that matter) but is organic in nature and emerges as people (old and young) find new ways to forge connections.  

I am not so naive to think that there aren't places where such growth is inhibited by various forms of structural power.  However, I urge you and your readers to resist cynicism regarding mainline denominations.  I suspect we will be surprised in a few decades, on the other side of the mainline denominational sea change we are now undergoing, to see that what has survived will be a mixture of old revitalized mainline churches and new avant garde forms of church. 

I promise to do support you, your generation and its creatives; but I urge you to take care not to dismiss too quickly the creatives who may be a bit older, but who have learned to get things done within institutions.  


Thank you so much for your

Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. If you ever got the chance to look into my larger body of work, I think you might not be so disappointed.

My book, Tribal Church, is committed to intergenerational ministry and Reframing Hope is about hope in the Mainline church, taking care to draw from our rich traditions. I love what Dori is writing about. We have the same perspective; in fact, we've taught conferences together.

I'm not Tony Jones. I respect him, but we have a much different perspective.

My cornfield analogy has not come from a cynical rejection of the Mainline. It's come out of my work as the chair of a national PCUSA committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century. It's come from looking at the data. And it's come from a bursting gratitude for a church that quite literally showed me God's grace. I wanted a hopeful metaphor--one that didn't proclaim "We're dying!" but pointed to the cycle of life. The reality is that half of our congregations can no longer afford a pastor, many are shrinking and not able to reach the next generation. Because I care and because I have hope, I want to make sure that our churches understand our larger context. 

Out of the congregations I named, there are at least 9 (possibly 12) examples from the Mainline. Most of them are Generation X, except for Miriam's Kitchen. My colleague, John Wimberly, did a great deal to initiate that, and he is 65. I serve an old, revitalized, traditional congregation. 

But...Gen X is old! The upper edge is 49! If I have a post highlighting my generation's work, I hope that people don't take that as an automatic dismissal of another generation....

Take care. Peace. And happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks again


Just to be clear, you seemed to be inviting readers to identify models that were not represented in your list--and I intended only to name one.  For the most part, your list seems to identify models that call for pretty radical structural shifts--church as art, church as internet, etc.  I intended to simply point to a model represented in Dori's book that requires dramatic shifts, not so much in structure, but in practices.  Of course, sometimes new practices demand new structures, but sometimes they do not.  I apologize if I misunderstood your position in relation to your total body of work.  You will have to admit, these are tough times to keep up with the large and growing variety of ecclesial positions.  

Personal Faith Program

It's a ministry that's in its 18th year, a church without walls.  It ministers primarily to those who have no desire to be involved in the institutional church and worship services, but who want to grow personally in their spirituality.  The Program involves faith chats, spiritual counseling, podcasts, pastoral care, workshops, weddings, funerals, etc.  Details are available at www.personalpastor.org.  Ray Dykes is the pastor.

Very good article...

Great ideas to conect Carol... Seems like you've done your research well.. One thing that bothered me a bit, is that you did not mention Jesus, the Bible or even quoted scripture... I am not judging, I am saying that perhaps you should mention at least one of those.

She assumed that

Well I'm sure that is her underlying assumption, being a Christian minister.  It's like if we tell people they need to write better prose, it isn't really necessary to mention the Alphabet, it's just assumed.

Ecumenical Union Churches

The church I serve is a Presbyterian-UCC congregation since 1971 (operating as a PC (USA) congregation according to the ecumenical covenant then in force).  We give half of our mission giving to both denominations.  Since then, our sister congregation since 1865 - First Congregational Church of Antioch, CA - has fallen on hard times and sold their building, so we are in the midst of discerning another church merger.  This time, we are looking at a "Federated" model where we keep both denominational identities more equally.  For two aging congregations with good signs of life in our music ministries, education programs, and youth groups (including one interfaith youth group for the LGBTQ teens in our region) we are very hopeful that we will not only survive, but thrive - together. 

Full Service Churches.

In celebration of the “Hatch, Match, and Dispatch“model
of ministry, entrepreneurial churches might well consider full service congregations
that offer services from dating matching, pre-martial counseling, wedding
consultants, gynecological/obstetric medical care, childcare,
elementary/secondary/university educational services, job placement agencies,
labor mediation, divorce mediation and legal services, hospice services, embalmment
and funeral director services, cemeteries and cremation, and such.

There would be no need to collect offerings.  Do not laugh. I used to joke about what became prise msuic and worse.