By Ed Thompson

I was surprised at the results of the voting on the proposed amendments to the constitution at our presbytery’s Fall Stated Meeting. Specifically, I was surprised at how many of them were voted down. It doesn’t really bother me that I didn’t get my own way. I got used to that early on in my ministry when I served in a presbytery that tended to be far more conservative than I am. I’m not sure I ever voted with the prevailing side other than when we voted to adjourn – and I might have voted the wrong way on that several times now that I think about it.

What bothers me is that I’m not sure we were thinking about the future when we voted. I am probably as guilty of that as anyone else. I’m not sure that I was really thinking about the impact any of these amendments would have on the church of the future when I was figuring out how I wanted to vote. It strikes me, though, that at least some of the time – and maybe most of the time – we were all thinking more about the past, trying to preserve what we understand as our tradition and to maintain things the way we want, the way we like them, the way that we were taught, the way that we’re used to.

I think we need to think more about the future, the way that will best serve a younger generation of members as well as a younger generation of ministers. I’m afraid that the results of at least some of our votes will appear to be narrow-minded, if not close-minded, to younger generations. That perceived stubbornness, that lack of openness will only serve to discourage people from entering the ministry, from staying in the ministry, and from being a part of our congregations. (I’m not even talking about people becoming members. That’s a whole different conversation. Regular attendance – even if it’s only one Sunday a month – is what I have in mind.)

We like what we like. But what if what we like doesn’t appeal to or doesn’t work for a younger generation? There’s more than one way to be Christian and even more than one way to be Presbyterian. We need to adapt in ways that go far beyond voting on amendments to the constitution. Times change, and people’s preferences change over time. That certainly applies to music. Even what we often refer to as contemporary Christian music in the church really reflects the musical tastes of the Baby Boomer generation. It doesn’t necessarily resonate with or speak to folks who are now in their 20s or 30s. I also enjoy organ music, but I fear that it only appeals to a shrinking niche of the overall population.

Even more than music, I’ve started to wonder whether the whole way we structure worship really works anymore. Most of us grew up listening – or perhaps trying to listen – to sermons. Frequently, maybe too frequently, the sermon resembles a lecture. That may not be intentional, but that’s the end result. Yes, people listen to podcasts, which are often like lectures. However, I’m not sure the sermon-as-lecture really works anymore. I think we need to radically reimagine the purpose or role of the sermon. Maybe rather than me telling you what I think, the sermon needs to be more of a conversation. Rather than focusing on the point that I want to get across and that I hope you’ll remember the next day, if not for the rest of your life, maybe we need to focus on asking people questions – to see what they think, to spur them to consider where they see God, to reflect on how the scriptures speak to them so that they can discover for themselves how they might act more like Jesus in particular situations and with the people they encounter.

We could also say that there needs to be more silence, more mystery, more openness in our worship. Maybe the only silence we experience and the only openness we express during worship now is when we ask for prayer concerns. Maybe that in and of itself deserves more time during the service. Rather than listening to the pastor pray, we could allow and encourage those in attendance to pray aloud about the needs that are on their hearts and minds. If worship does not depend on a sermon as lecture but is more focused on conversation, reflection on scripture, and shared prayer, a pastor can spend far less time preparing a sermon and can spend far more time listening to the people and listening for the Holy Spirit.

As we think about the future of the church, maybe we also need to take a fresh look at our buildings and even consider whether we are well served by a building or if we really need to have one. Most, if not all, of our church buildings are suffering from delayed maintenance issues. To make them more useful, more flexible, more accessible will take far more money than most congregations have or can afford to borrow. Maybe we’re better served by selling the buildings we now have and renting smaller spaces that have plenty of parking and that would allow us to sit in comfortable chairs or couches in a circle that can easily be expanded according to the size of the group and the purpose of the meeting.

We also don’t need to meet only on Sunday mornings. We could meet on Sunday nights, Wednesday mornings, or early Saturday morning before the youth leagues play or late Saturday afternoons after the youth league games are over.

I know the future church is going to be different. I’m not sure what exactly it’s going to look like, but I want to believe it will include younger generations in pastoral leadership, be far less focused on preserving the past, and far more focused on sharing the inclusive love of Jesus with our neighbors.

What do you think?