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Monday, February 23, 2009

RevGalBookPals: Tribal Church

I’m in Black Mountain, NC right now because my godchildren were baptized yesterday. It’s breathtaking to see the mountains, and to be out of the city for a bit. We’ll be traveling back to D.C. today, but Songbird gave me this wonderful opportunity to talk about Tribal Church with you, so I’m going to check in as much as I can.

My day job is working as a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church. And, like most of you, I also write and blog in my spare time. I wrote Tribal Church because I was tired of hearing about how the only way to reach out to a new generation of young adults (adults under the age of forty) was to get out the praise choruses, ditch the pews, and ignite a worship war in your congregation. It seemed like the only way that it was possible to minister to them was to throw out all of our traditions, and plant a booming, Gen-X church, with lots of imagery flashing on a powerpoint screen.

But that was not what was happening in the congregations that I served for the last ten years. When I talked to young parents, they said they liked being at the church because it gave their kids a chance to be around old people. And people told me over and over again that they appreciated the traditions and the liturgy. They enjoyed being a part of a community that was not about a charismatic pastor, but it was more like they were stepping into a stream, a deep current of faith and doubt that had been flowing before them, and would be flowing after them. They longed for sacred traditions like contemplative prayer.

Their words echoed my own experience. As a woman, growing up in the midst of various churches—conservative Southern Baptist congregations and mega-churches—I longed for the beauty, art, liturgy, and social justice traditions that mainline congregations had to offer.

I use the metaphor “tribe” because tribes are intergenerational communities that care for one another. And when we are at our best, we do the same thing—when we walk alongside each other, encouraging each other on our spiritual journeys.

Of course, it wasn’t always easy in the mainline church. Strangely, I often sensed a fear of outsiders, rather than a welcoming. People had a difficult time understanding why I would leave my conservative upbringing and join the mainline, and the switch was viewed with suspicion (especially during my ordination process).

The church’s healthy love of education could grow into a pernicious classism that made people check my resume at coffee hour. As they would ask, “And where do you work?” they were never thrilled about me working at the mall. And when they asked, “Where did you go to school?” they were not asking for a reference to the local high school.

So, I also wrote the book to try to sort out some of the roadblocks that we have to reaching out to men and women under forty. For instance, many of our congregations do not understand some of the economic realities of young adults, and they have a tendency of thinking of them as simply irresponsible with their money. They don’t always understand that many of them are not able to make long-term financial commitments to their congregations.

Congregations have difficulty realizing that a new generation of women is not able to keep up with the time-consuming customs that older generations have constructed. If certain practices are dying, we may need to rethink them, instead of berating young adults for not being involved. That means that some of our most sacred customs—the women’s clubs, the yard sales, the quilting circles, and church cookbooks—will need some serious thought.

And we have difficulty allowing young leadership to flourish. We tend to expect people to take a lot of time, working their way up our church systems, instead of our congregations being actively recruiting young, innovative leadership.

So, I wonder, what are the major barriers that your church has while reaching out to young adults?

Are there customs that are clearly not making the shift to a new generation?

Are there traditions inherent in the customs that your congregation needs to maintain and nurture?

What sort of things are your young adults passionate about?

And, of course, if there’s anything that you would like to ask me about the book, I’d be happy to answer. As usual, you can buy the book through the Amazon link on the right, and the portion of the proceeds will go to RevGals.


  1. The young adults that I know well here are working and in graduate school full time. There is pressure to create a social group for this age group as there are social groups for those in two other (older) age groups, but these particular young people don't really have time for that.

    That's one of the barriers. I think that integenerational connections would be really exciting to them (more so than the social group thing), but that's what the church has "always done."

    It's still early here, so I'll be back later in the day with more to say.

  2. Diane, Yeah, that's a very interesting point.

    People need community, but we tend to think of that as a youth group for adults. But most YAs don't have time for another program or something to do. So we'll have to think differently--learn ways to connect to people where they're at and with what they need.

  3. First of all I loved your book Tribal Church. I was saying amen at the end of each of your sentences.

    I think there are a couple of things at play in regards to generational differences. Being a 40 something Pastor I feel like I am on the cusp between Gen X and the Boomer Generation, yet my the congregation of my church is predominantly over the age of 65.

    There is misunderstandings between the generations, the over 65 crowd wants the church of the 1950s, yet demographic changes such as people having less children, both parents having to work etc. says to me that the church of their dreams will not come back. Also when ladies guild, bible study and other fellowship opportunities only meet during the day this leaves out the working folk.

    Young adults are passionate about a lot of things, both personal and public. A big passion is their families, raising their children and making the world a better place for their children to grow up. I also wonder if young adults are looking for rest in the midst of their busyness, a time where they can be still and know God. I've also seen a passion for justice in young adults, the election of Obama have brought a lot of folks out of the cracks and into the community. Wouldn't it be great if we could bring them into our churches.

    Well, this comment is getting way too long. But thanks for your book and thank you for your ministry!

  4. At a conference I attended not so long ago it was suggested that young adults who return home for visits are more interested in seeing their church family than reconnecting with their peers (these days perhaps they are doing that through other networks, primarily online). I know that was true of me when I was that age. Nurturing those intergenerational relationships is important, but even moreso, creating a space in which they can be built is critical. Right now coffee hour seems to be the primary forum, and I don't think that is sufficient.

    Mine is a small church with mostly "older" folks, though we do have several families with children under the age of ten. The older adults are very fond of those kids. The passions of those families are their children. We have the ingredients with which to build deeper relationships, the "how" is our present challenge.

  5. Carol, your book came as such an affirmation when I first read it last year: that there can be LIFE in churches that are not mega, and that the life in those churches can include all generations.
    In my first call, which had some similarities to your previous church, the trouble came in that what the people of the church meant when they said "we need young people," was "we need our own young people." Something in the history of the church drove off the younger generation: the treatment of the pastor who baptized/confirmed/married many of them, for which they blamed their parents and grandparents, either for mistreating him or being ineffectual in defending him. The church never worked through those issues -- an interim failure -- and so when we attracted several families with children (a big number for a church of less than 100 members), older members refused to "see" them. I wish I had been more experienced or more fearless in that setting, but we live and learn.
    My current setting as an interim does a much better job welcoming people across the age span and creating a sense of community. They see themselves as aging, but it's not as dire as they perceive! I have a lot of hope for them, if they will continue to show LOVE to newcomers. In a smaller church, it's never going to be programs that anchor a new member; it must be love.

  6. God_Guurrlll said, "I've also seen a passion for justice in young adults, the election of Obama have brought a lot of folks out of the cracks and into the community. Wouldn't it be great if we could bring them into our churches."

    I've been thinking about this so much. How can we harness that on-line activism for the change that many of our congregations have been working for?

    So many of our mainline social justice ministries are regrettably not making the generational shift. But it seems like with new technologies and passion, this could a huge time for feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for creation....

    It's too bad that many of our denominations are more known for fighting over LGBTs than for doing these important things.

    So, how can we harness new tools and new passions for the (old-school Rauschenbuschian) reign of God?

  7. alter_ego said, "Right now coffee hour seems to be the primary forum, and I don't think that is sufficient."

    Amen. That can be a really deadly, socially-awkward time. I wonder what we could do instead....

  8. Some of the best intergenerational relationships in my congregation have begun and deepened around a particular mission or task. Mentoring a young confirmand, or working on a short-term mission project, scouting, or in choir. We are so age-segregated in Sunday Schoool, and so busy otherwise, that strictly social gatherings don't foster the kinds of relationships needed for YAs and their children to feel and be rooted.

    I am trying to figure out now how to start a book study for parents, and make it both an in-person group study, and online for those who can't join the discussion in person. Not sure yet...,

    Thanks for the discussion. Need to read your book, still, Carol....

  9. I am beginning to seriously challenge the statement "We need more young people" when it is said at the church I serve. (It is said at every meeting where there are 'jobs' to be meted out.)I am beginning to ask a lot more questions about what that wish is expressing.

    There is an undercurrent of "We over-60s are tired" but often the ones saying that we "need" young people just want the younger people to carry out the programs an social events that the over-60s began 15-20 years ago.

    An example: a few years ago someone pointed out (rather insistently) that we "need" to find a younger person to join our church who is willing to stand on a chair to wind the beloved old sanctuary clock. The person who had been climbing up on the chair to do this task was approaching 70 and had bad knees.

    My counter-suggestion to either:

    1)move the clock to a slightly lower position on the wall so that it could be wound by someone standing on the floor or

    2)replace the clockworks with a battery, eliminating the need for weekly winding,

    were met with blank stares then quickly rejected.

  10. Cheese, we have a similar issue, except that the "young people" are what we have (50% of our congregation is probably under 45)...what those young people don't have is the time or calling to do those clock-winding tasks. They don't want to sit on committees, they don't want to resurrect events everyone remembers fondly from years ago, they don't want to perpetuate the same thing we've been doing for 20 years. So all the same people continually do those things, and those people are getting older and more bitter at the perceived "laziness" of "those young people." I don't know how to say to people, "well, *lazy* is sort of a strong word for a family with three kids under 10, two working parents who also care for aging parents, who sing in our choir, participate in the band in our contemporary service, play and sing for our Taize service, whose kids sing in our children's choirs, who help set up our weekly Wednesday evening dinner, who attend adult ed classes, with one parent on session and the other on the PNC...don't you think?" without sounding snarky. It seems that older long-time members are more interested in young people doing things THEY want/can see than in what young adults are actually doing.

    Having said that, it is pretty awesome to have so many young adults, youth, and children who are committed participants in our faith community. They can't help but change the world, after all.

  11. There's a delicate balance, isn't there?

    Often my friend Jan (at A Church for Starving Artist, who will be coming out with a book WikiChurch soon) says that she is pastoring two churches. She is intentionally making a space for two different ways of thinking in her congregation.

    That's where the rug (on the book cover) comes in. Often times, like nimble carpet weavers, we need to create different spaces, while allowing various generations to come together. This is especially important when the YAs in our churches find that they are not able to create their own ministries within the broader context of the church.

  12. oh! I forgot..the childcare issue is huge too. With so many families with young children, we offer childcare for all the standard stuff that happens at the church (worship, midweek education, committee night, session/deacon night). But whenever I bring up needing to offer childcare for an event, someone says "can't they just get a babysitter? we offer an awful lot of childcare." They don't seem to get that the financial strain of babysitting = less participation in church events because it's easier and cheaper to stay home. So when we have special events--fellowship, other education opportunities, things that happen on nights other than Wednesday, when we ask people to be on committees that don't meet on committee night, or to serve as youth leaders or teachers of extra classes (confirmation, etc), that's a burden to find childcare and pay for it. And then we wonder why we don't get people under retirement age coming to those things, volunteering for those tasks/events, etc. gee, I wonder. We seem to quickly forget that church isn't the only thing these families do, and not the only thing in a week that might require a babysitter--what about school/work events, extracurricular activities, the occasional date night or outing with friends, etc? (sigh)

    Okay, I'm done complaining for real. I'm going to go into the office so my book is handy and then I'll be back later to actually discuss the questions, I swear. :-)

  13. Oh! The last comment was in response to Queen Mum. It took a while to show up...

    The "we need young people" comments can so often be translated as "we're old and tired, and we need people to keep our budgets and programs going." We too often want young people to buy into our churches for their energy and money.

    If only we could shift the thinking from "we need young people" to "we really care about young people. We're concerned about their needs and struggles. We want to reach out to them, where they are."

    I'm so glad you're asking such important questions, Cheesehead.

  14. Carol, you ave hit the nail on the head again. "We need" and "We care about" are so very different, especially to the ones who are the direct object in those sentences.

    I believe that young people (and I almost qualify at 45) want to be valued, not merely needed. People in that time of life are already needed by many people for many reasons: their children, their parents, their employers/employees, even their partners/spouses to some extent. What they may be looking for is place where they are cherished not for their demographics or their potential output, but for who they are.

    That's a hard sell to a generation who got where they are by being both hard-working and indispensable.

    My $.02 worth.

  15. I should probably explain who I am before I answer your questions. I am 24, single, a full-time student (undergrad—I went back after a “hiatus”), a part-time church secretary, and a life-long member of a UCC church.

    The biggest barrier I see is the notion that the only young adults (as you say, those under 40, though I think for us it’s more like under 35) who are interested in church are married with children (and that those people are the only mature young adults). I am on the CE board, the Stewardship Committee and the Centennial Planning committee. In the past several months I have helped serve coffee hour, planned our Halloween Party, contributed to worship by singing solos and lighting the advent candles. I seriously implore any and all ministers to reach out to UN-married young adults in your community – they want/need that spiritual connection, too.

    There are two other very active young women, one of whom is on the CE board with me, and still when I talk with the older congregants about young adults in church, they say I am an exception, that I am more mature then most people my age. While I think it’s true that I have different priorities than some of my friends, the need for spiritual sustenance has nothing to do with maturity, and I find the notion ageist and offensive.

    The last time someone brought up this idea, that young adults weren’t involved because of maturity, I was so upset that I just blurted out, “No. They aren’t involved because you don’t really want them here.” Now, that was a little harsh, but I think it’s true that people want to know that if they invite someone to a potluck they’ll already know how to cook something for 20 people, or that they’ll be able to drive themselves to gatherings (in an urban setting it’s not really financially feasible to own a car at my income level). They don’t like the uncertainty that young adulthood brings to the table (and who does?! I hate it!)

    Also, as an aside, it’s also difficult to be a “daughter of the church” as a young adult. Many people still see you as a child that needs looking after versus a peer whose experience is different and shorter than yours, but not necessarily less informative.

    "Are there customs that are clearly not making the shift to a new generation?"
    In a lot of ways my church is trying to bring back some of those old traditions, like big turkey dinners in the basement gym. We struggle with how to accomplish these things with women working as much as men and children having just as full plates. We also have a new minister who is more conscious of single people and young adults needing a place, which is nice.

    "Are there traditions inherent in the customs that your congregation needs to maintain and nurture?"
    For us, our youth program is important to nurture because we had a very strong youth group and choir program and recently we have a disconnect between parents wanting those things to be available but not wanting to “force” their children to participate, leaving the weekly attendance for choirs at an average of 3! (out of about 30 total kids)

    "What sort of things are your young adults passionate about?"
    My church friends and I are most concerned with how to fit social justice and community building into our busy lives. We aren’t retired, we aren’t our own bosses and we live on our own incomes alone – it isn’t easy to find time to volunteer at a soup kitchen when you’re juggling work and school.

    Sorry that was so long, but I’m pretty passionate about this stuff, as you can see!

  16. Carol, I greatly enjoyed your book - it's been several weeks since I read it!

    The thing that resounded for me was the intergenerational part...the congregation where I was able to go back to church (after a few years in the wilderness) was very non-traditional and intergenerational (though still Episcopal). That suited me so well. At that time in my life, I felt excluded by "women's groups," "young people's groups," etc. I did NOT want to be categorized! I was in my mid-20's then. I was greatly nurtured by people of all ages - then, and as a child in my growing-up church.

    A barrier in my current church is the lack of consistent child care for evening groups and activities. I belong to a women's group now that has members from early 20's to 70's. Our young moms do not regularly come - many have traveling spouses and so are unable to get away in the evening.

    With some friends, I am starting an experimental group that is an arm of this one, and we plan to indicate that we will do it for 6 weeks to start, and there WILL be child care every week. We will make that commitment so people can count on it. I am interested to see if it helps...

    Our liturgy is often seen as a barrier...but we have a number of young couples who didn't come from our denomination, and they seem to have figured it out. It can happen!

    People get excited about mission work! I am excited about that energy and plan to do more with it (I'm Vestry coordinator for outreach.)

  17. Oh, and something we HAVE changed...instead of the series of potlucks I remember so fondly for Lenten suppers and such, we have a ministry group take on the responsibility for supper each week. In a major metro area, with most of our members having 2-income households, weeks and weeks of potlucks tend to devolve into a table full of KFC buckets!

    First week of Lent, the Vestry will supply "you stuff-em" baked potatoes and salad and drinks.

    One week the men's group is making red beans & rice. One week my women's group is bringing crock-pots of soup, breads, and salad. The very last week is a real potluck, and we'll still have KFC...but not as much. :)

  18. AMEN to sisterfilms point about single people! In my congregation, there's just ME and ONE other single "young adult". And the other one has essentially left the church recently because of people treating her like their children rather than as an adult. it is extremely frustrating. so now it's jut me....but then again, the demographics of my county support that--what single professional young adult lives this far out in the suburbs? what single young adult can afford to live in this area?

    We do have a couple of customs/traditions that are dying a too-slow death, in my opinion, for exactly the reasons everyone has mentioned, and one of those was the one our other single woman got involved in that led to this disaster in her spiritual/emotional life (and, I might add, our congregation's life as well). The Christmas Cookie Sale. I'm sure many churches have something like this. For y'all's sakes, I hope they aren't as fraught with danger as ours has been the last couple of years...

  19. Oh, Teri, don't get me started on Teh Cookie Sale of Doom! Srsly.

    What I find frustrating (and I can't imagine is serving the gospel one iota) is the amount of time that is spent on the traditions that nobody has time to attend to anymore. If I were a younger person, either married or single, and I had a choice about a congregation to join, I can't imagine that a church which can spend so many hours discussing cookies (clocks, carpeting, etc) would be attractive. Sigh...

  20. So the question remains, unless you have the resources (and I mean human and personal as much as financial) to have two churches in one, as Jan is doing, how do you meet the need for meaningful interactions for some people without abandoning the current congregation and the experiences it considers meaningful long after the time has gone by?
    As an Interim, I do a lot of smiling and saying sweetly, "Those days are gone by!" And saying it over and over again. I can get away with it. I can even get the message across, to some people. All Interims need to do it more, in fact, though some don't.

  21. It's incredibly sad that in our culture adulthood (or "maturity") = a mortgage + a marriage certificate. We've got to get over that assumption.

    I agree, Songbird. We have been kicking around the second church thing and it sounds exhausting. I do think different generations can do it together, but it takes very intentional older people and a lot of conversations about generational differences. A good interim would be really helpful too!

  22. I am totally intrigued by your book... I work in a nondenominational church that spends a lot of time on the "gizmos" for Sunday morning because it is firmly believed "that it's what people will relate to." I do believe the Bible is relevant and life-giving. I do believe that God wants us to grow and learn together.

    YET... my husband and I, as we pray and talk, sense that there is a longing for the "deep streams of faith." (I have no other words to describe it.) It's more than a program. It's "life together" with family that spans generations and experiences... and I want to build that...

    We're neighbors... sort of... I think I need to make a visit to Foggy Bottom!!!

    Obviously I'm still reading your book (with seminary it's hard to get 'fun reads' in) so my thoughts are not well-formed.


  23. Hi, I'm back here after a day of runnning errands and reading (finishing your book!) and other things.

    I'm actually on the last chapter. I'm resonating with the desire for spiritual community, really thinking about that. I'm thinking about our little chapel service on Saturday night which has always been mostly older people.


    I'm thinking of the single woman in her late 20s who worshipped at that service regularly. All of the widows kind of adopted her. At some point she started bringing this young man with her once in awhile.

    When they got married, they got married in the little chapel, right before that worship service, because that was her church. (unfortunately, then they moved to new york, where he worked.)

    There have been a couple of families with small children who started out in that service. Another family with teenagers who occasionally drops in.

    I'm wondering what would happen if we worked at making that Saturday service into a more intentionally intergenerational service, relatively traditional, with some tweaks....

  24. OK,just added another book to my "want to read" list.

    I have to say that a part of my heart weeps whenevr I hear people come to the conclusion that the way to involve young people in the church is to have a separate service geared to "their needs".

    On the Sunday after Christmas, when we read the story of Simmeon and Anna in the temple, I preached on what I believe is one of the gretest gifts the church has to offer. THe church is one of the few organizations where the generations gather together. Then church is a place where children like mine (whose biologicals live in other communities) have surrogate grandparents and vice versa. There are so few of those inter-generational places left. We need to find a way to support them. We need to make them work without segregating generations off from each other.

  25. also wanted to say I had some mixed feelings about your thoughts on aging seminarians. while I agree with you that there are significant barriers to young people going into the ministry, I remember being mortified to hear two professors talking about the liability of "older" seminarians because the church is not going to get back its investment on them...

    I went to seminary in my 30s, at 52 I cannot, alas, be considered a "young clergy person", yet I think I do (or at least I did) have unique gifts to offer the church when I graduated and was ordained at 37.

    I'd hate to think I was a liability, but that's what your words made me think.

    If I'm tired now, it has a lot more to do with the culture of the church/congregation, and less to do with being too old, I think.

    and I agree with you about the discrimination women clergy face.

  26. also, you didn't speak directly about this, but it seems that everywhere BUT the church, youth is practically worshipped: as in we want to be younger, marketing is to younger people, etc.

    I realize that as the BBoomers age, this is changing a lot. The people in my age are often greatest generation'ers. They may be the greatest generation, but marketing is to boomers and below.

    except in the church.

    I don't know, maybe that's one reason they hold on.

  27. Thanks, Diane. What did I write about aging seminarians? I don't remember... I hope it's not something I'll regret... was it the M. E. Marty "maturation in office" bit?

    I have a wonderful intern, who's a retired school teacher. I'm learning what a huge sacrifice that she's making, and the difficulties that she'll have in getting a job.

  28. we have a returned college professor here as an intern. very interesting perspective. she wants to be a mission developer. I'm very interested in how she discerned her calling in this area.

  29. I'm definitely an "aged" seminarian - turning 54 this year. I still have kids in school (middle school and high school). I haven't been faced with any agism in seminary, in fact, quite the reverse. My professors have told me that they believe in me.

    DO I wish I had stuck to my guns 20 years ago? Sure. I'll just rest in believing that my re-route was not a fluke and that God remains in control.

    In the church setting, it's been difficult at times; I have faced a lot of sexism. Some corners of Christianity just believe that Paul was joking when he wrote Gal 3:28...


  30. This is such a great discussion, thanks Carol! On "second church," it has to be the case that there are many ways to be faithful. What really matters is figuring out how to do it in a particular time and place; it's not formulaic, but organic, I believe. But that is process-oriented and requires time and trust, doesn't it?

  31. Chiming in ridiculously late to say thanks for the book and for this conversation.

    And this isnt to answer your questions, but to say that I've followed 2 pieces of your advice, Carol, from your book I think(or blog maybe) that have worked to help my church, which is currently growing. So I wanted to say thanks! Those things are:

    1. Sit in the sanctuary and pray about it. Keep the prayer realistic (did you say 10%? I think so). Imagine those new people in the pews. Imagine the sanctuary with that many extra people.

    2. Be authentic. When I first started at my church 18 months ago, and they would express the "we HAVE to get YOUNG people in here!" thing, I would say, "How about instead we be the very best church we can be for the people who are already here - retired people who love God and want to serve - and see what happens? This is a great church - let's stop talking about all we are not and start talking about what is working." So much easier and cheaper and BETTER than getting a power point screen and a praise band, which just would be us at all...

    Anyway, both of these things have helped so much. So thanks, Carol.

    And great discussion, everyone. Only sorry I did not check in earlier.

  32. Juniper,

    Thank you so much. I'm so glad to hear it.


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