A couple of days ago, I was a part of a focus group of pastor-type people. It is for a study of so-called emerging adults being done by some researchers at Marymount University (and with hopeful funding from the Lily Endowment). They’re interested in the broad disinterest in church evidenced by Americans in their twenties.
Though I was nervous about the overwhelming presence of a local celebrity pastor, he apparently passed on the meeting and left it to us small-timers. Who enjoyed a wonderful time of free-ranging discussion between we 5 practitioners and 3 sociologists from around the country talking about church and culture. From where I was sitting, it was a helpful time of challenging assumptions and generalizations and misconceptions. Of talking about inclusion vs. hierarchy, of creativity vs. corporatization, of listening vs. proclaiming, of practice vs. doctrine, of conversation vs. dogma, of personal vs. mega. It was also a chance to see walls come down: at one point, one of the pastors asserted, “I don’t know what people mean by ‘emergent’, but I know I’m not!” Five minutes later, he laughed, “Maybe I am emergent…” Overall, it was an extended opportunity to suggest that the ‘problem’– if there is one– is due to the general tendency of churches to decline significant input from the people who they’re trying to ‘reach’.
We were breathing this rich air of understanding, nuance, and collective wisdom when the final question was presented: “So which churches should we study?”. I could practically hear the air leave the room as the suggestions were– almost exclusively– mega-churches promoting attractional models of what is essentially the same kind of church and Christianity that has been in existence for several hundred years. Now granted, sociology without numbers is merely speculation, so these researchers shouldn’t be blamed for heading toward the crowds. But if we keep doing the same thing we’ve always done, how can we expect to get different results? More importantly, how will those who see things differently ever find a place, an affirmation of their insight, a voice, and a community?