The following is excerpted from Richard Flory’s remarks at the first round in CRCC’s series “Conversations on Thriving Communities.”
The goal of Reimagining Church Initiative is to bring together a group of church leaders to create a “learning community” in which ideas, relationships and support can be developed, all in the service of strengthening local churches, particularly as they—you—face the different challenges and opportunities presented by a rapidly changing world.
There are many challenges facing faith institutions of all sorts, not the least churches. To name just two, the number of “religious nones” (what some might call the “unchurched”) has increased from 16 percent in 2007 to about 25 percent of the current US population. Young people show an even higher number with over one-third claiming no religion (with most of these having left the faith of their youth). Further, service attendance shows similar declines, with only 36 percent of Americans saying that they attend services once each week, and another 33 percent saying that they attend services once a month or “a few times a year” (your typical Easter and Christmas attenders).
This decline in attendance is, again, higher among young people with over one-half who say they never attend worship services, up from 18 percent when they were teens.
The other challenge is the current COVID-19 pandemic. While this has been forced on churches and other religious institutions, it has required quick responses to a new reality and to create new ways of “being church.” To put this in somewhat Darwinian terms, only the smart, or adaptive, or resourced, or opportunistic will survive.
There are a lot of good ideas and examples of how churches can respond to this crisis and the opportunity for re-thinking—in our terms, “re-imagining”—how to be a church, and how to be the church (a subtle distinction). And while there is a lot of information available on the Internet, we believe that there is nothing like having actual people talking with each other, sharing ideas, challenges and successes, learning from each other and hopefully birthing new ideas and ways that they can “be church” in the new environment in which we are all now living.
This series of conversations is the beginning of our effort to bring together a diverse set of church leaders to create an environment in which your challenges, successes and ideas can be shared, which in turn might spark a new thought in your or someone else’s mind, thus resulting in a new program, ministry, or whatever.
Over the past few days, several wildfires have erupted across California. The largest, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties—upwards of 26,000 acres—was started by a spark from a truck. If I were to choose a metaphor for what we want this initiative, and indeed this group of leaders, to do is to be that spark that sets off a fire of innovation and a reimagining of how you can be a thriving congregation—both serving the needs of your members, and also turning outward to serve the needs of your surrounding communities; adapting, rethinking, revising, and creating new ways of being that church.
And that’s one outcome we want to see from this initiative, that your churches will become an inspiration, a spark if you will, for other churches to reimagine how they are being church, and in turn to begin to create a larger network of thriving congregations.
Richard Flory is the senior director of research and evaluation with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.