A Mega Change Is Needed

I’m a Presbyterian pastor in a town neighboring Parsippany, New Jersey, and I’ve lost members to the Liquid Church, mentioned recently in this NPR article. Here’s what I know.

Our church is thriving at nearly 200 members. We have a talented youth ministries director, a fun and inspiring, multiage Sunday School class during worship, snappy contemporary praise music once a month, a food pantry, and a weeknight dinner church for young children and their families. It’s a transformative community, warm and welcoming, and in addition to being the pastor of the church, it is a joy to raise my two young children in such a fabulous spiritual community.

Small churches can be places of deep spiritual transformation, of course, but with aging buildings and skyrocketing expenses, the thriving small church’s closing date is on the horizon. Our members raise their pledges every year, and, yet, we have to draw down our reserves to cover our increasing expenses. And, every church I know is drawing down their reserves, too.

Whenever a mom posts to the ‘Morris County Mommy Friends’ Facebook group, a group with over 8K members, seeking a recommendation for a church, I always comment and link to our church’s website. And, every time, the page is flooded with comments from moms recommending the Liquid Church. Social media is where churches get ‘made,’ and in our very populous county in New Jersey, the Liquid Church has no equal.

I sat down next to another parent at my child’s preschool graduation, and we started talking. I think I referenced a story the teacher told me once about our kids breaking into, in the teacher’s words, “Jesus songs” one afternoon. But, however it came up, the woman next to me said, “Do you go to a church?” ‘Oh, honey,’ I thought to myself. I learned that she and her family have been attending Liquid Church since its early years. “My daughter loves the music! She loves to dance before leaving for Sunday School. She calls them her dancing songs!”

And, there it is. The conversation revealed two things to me about the choice to attend Liquid Church.

First, the music at Liquid Church is good. Like, fill your heart and make you dance and connect your spirit to God’s Spirit, good. The lyrics are singable. The musicians are talented. Liquid Church has the resources and the will to plan worship music that creates a spiritual experience to which people want to return.

Worship planners, we have to set aside our pride. People who are looking for a church to attend want to sing the kind of songs they sing at Liquid Church. They do not have the spiritual memory of the hymns many of my longtime members enjoy, or, they have bad memories of the churches that sang those hymns.

This is the second thing I was reminded at preschool graduation: parents will make the choice again and again to bring their children to a place they really love.

A family left our church for Liquid Church a few years ago because, after trying it out, their child wanted to go, no early morning fights, because when he got there, he knew he’d have a friend his age, every time. They’ve since come back. Our church’s attendance fluctuates between two and 18 children. On any given Sunday, the six or eight kids may not be the same six or eight kids that attended the previous week.

A young adult who grew up in our church attended Liquid Church for many years. He loved his small group full of other young adults, went on mission trips, met partners and dated. He’s since fallen away from attending, but for many years Liquid Church was the center of his life.

Churches that already have children and youth, young families, and young adults, will always add to their number. This is not a new phenomenon. Most of the 80 and 90 year olds who I eulogize at their memorial services attended church with their friends in their young adult years, no matter the denomination, even if it was just for a couple years in one place. In the 1970’s our longtime members started coming to our church because their friends and co-workers of their same age invited them. Young adults and families attend church wanting to worship among friends and make new friends. I get it, and moreover, I believe friendship is at the heart of Christian practice.

A single dad left our church for Liquid Church during the pandemic. Liquid Church was holding outdoor praise music with a full band long before our church could organize anything as powerful in person. He wanted the opportunity to connect to new people, enjoy great music, and possibly date. And, pastorally, I’ll tell you, that was what his spirit needed. Remember how lonely we all were in 2021? (And, still are?)

Because churches with children, youth, and young adults will always add to their number…

And, because thriving small churches cannot stay open forever, as we quickly spend down our reserves and do not add more than a handful of new members every year…

And, because I do not want to give up my neighbor-loving, Jesus-following, God as Creator and community-builder, life-from-death, table and font theology…

I wonder…

How do we, mainliners, pull together the resources and collective will of many, many people and churches to create spiritual experiences in which people can make and deepen friendships with many local people their same age? Because this, I think, is what people are seeking from a church right now.

Could we plan combined worship services? Retreats? Community service?

A mega change will take leadership. The leadership of pastors and Sessions and Presbyteries to merge (or somehow creatively unite) healthy but declining small churches to reach a critical mass to really give this a chance before all these little churches slowly die over the next five years.

As our mainline church recovered from the pandemic, I asked our staff to plan as if they were starting a brand new church. It’s been a life-giving project. We now enjoy contemporary praise music once a month. We’ve been learning new songs and have new favorites; people of all ages lead, and online attendees started coming in person because they ‘had to hear the music live.’ People in their 80’s sway along, and their hearts melt as they watch teens mouth the words. My children dance and sing.

What if we, mainliners, were starting a brand new church, using what we have now? And, I mean, what we collectively have now, people, buildings, resources, pastors. Shall we try?

Sarah J. Cairatti is a pastor living in Whippany, New Jersey. She loves creative ministry, the town pool, writing, and spending time with her family outdoors. She occasionally posts to her blog: twocoppercoinsblog.wordpress.com

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