There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Matthew 21:33-41)
The Church (capital “C”) is facing many significant challenges. Worship attendance has been in steady decline for decades. Most congregations will admit that the average age of their worshipping members is far above the average age of people who live in their surrounding community. Surveys indicate that 23% of Americans identify themselves as “Nones”—people who have no interest in participating in the life of the Church. Surveys also indicated that 67% of Millennials were raised outside of the traditional structures of the Church. And yet, quite interestingly, 61% of the “Nones” believe in God.
We live in rapidly changing times. The “traditional” is being disrupted by the “innovative.” People can create their own radio stations using Spotify, or Pandora. People can avoid spending time in shopping malls by simply visiting Amazon.com in their home. Millennials have abandoned Encyclopedia Britannica, and now find information that they need on Wikipedia. We watch movies using Netflix instead of going to theaters. We can find quality sermons with the click of a mouse. We’re unbundling cable services and learning in the Khan Academy. Times are quickly changing. And the Church must look at its future and its ministry in different ways. Are the “Nones” unreachable? Or do we need to reconsider our approach to a group of modern “believers” who are simply not attracted to the Church’s existing structures and traditions?
“Nones” continue to believe in God, but they tend to sense God’s presence outside of the Church’s traditional box. “Nones” aren’t lost. “Nones” aren’t deaf to God’s voice. “Nones” aren’t unmoved by the presence of the Holy Spirit. But, even as we hold these truths in our minds, we need to stop assuming that the “Nones” are going to find their way back to the Church “when they come to their senses.” We cannot assume that “opening the doors” on Sunday morning is enough to attract people to worship. We can’t safely assume that people in the 21st Century will simply continue to find the “map”—that’s been marked with all of our favorite structures and songs and traditions—helpful. The Church has taught us to navigate through life by using a particular “map” that was meaningful to those who have gone before us, and that continues to be meaningful (at least to some of us) today. Many people in the Church want to believe that a particular “map”—that’s been marked with all of our favorite structures and traditions—will continue to meet the needs of people in every age. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the fact that the “map” isn’t the “territory”? Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the fact that God can’t be contained in the box we’ve created with all of our traditions and structures? Maybe, we need to listen to the voices of the “Nones”—instead of considering them to be “lost”—so that we can continue to build ministries that help modern people successfully navigate through life, today?
We cannot continue to assume that the “Nones” will suddenly feel an urge to change their course and feel the need to more actively participate in the traditional structures that we’ve created (or inherited), and that we want to continue to control. Jesus once said that we can’t put new wine into old wineskins (Matthew 9:17). Perhaps, the real challenge of the “Nones” is one that continues to invite us to realize that our “map” (our traditional concepts and structures) is not as effective as it once was in helping people to find God in the midst of modern life?
Now it’s your turn to join the conversation:
The tenants in Christ’s parable deeply invested their time and energy in the vineyard; and, in the midst of making that type of an investment, developed a sense of “ownership.” How does our “sense of ownership” in the Church create challenges when we sense that God is trying to move our ministries in a different direction?
Jesus said that we can’t simply pour new wine into old wineskins. What did He mean by that? What does that say to the Church, right now?
Many people assume that “Nones” are people who don’t believe in God. How can ministry be reshaped by a more accurate realization of the fact that most “Nones” are believers— whose faith and sense of God simply doesn’t fit into the Church’s traditional concepts and structures?
Millennials are “unbundling” almost everything in their lives—realizing that it’s alright to seek information and services from a variety of sources. What would “unbundled” ministry look like? How could the ministry of a congregation be strengthened by leaders who focus upon a particular mission, rather than upon trying to be “all things to all people”?