In recent months, the Christ Forward group has been having some interesting conversations around St. Paul’s mission and identity. One article we looked at came from the Diocese of Ohio and extolled the virtues of doing outreach with the Boomer generation (instead of the common overemphasis on reaching “Millennials” or “Families with Youth Children”). You can find the article here.
I offered a few reactions to this article to the group. It wasn’t that I disagreed that we should include Boomers in our planning for outreach and evangelism. But there was something about the tone of the article that gave me pause.
There are certainly some things that are true, at least anecdotally, at St. Paul’s:
- Our most active volunteers at St. Paul’s are usually Boomers.
- Our regular worship attenders are more often Boomers.
- Participants in education, music, and programming are more often Boomers.
We care about Outreach to all people, including Boomers. This shows by the fact that there are many Boomers in our new member class.
But having studied racism so closely with Sacred Ground and other programs, there is something that feels strange about this emphasis. It reminds me of movements like “All lives matter” or “Why don’t heterosexual people have a pride day, too?” The reason is: because those people (white people, heterosexual people) are already in power. They are not oppressed due to being white or being straight. It is the oppressed people who are seeking a voice, and that should not come as a threat to those who already have a voice. It is an equalizing of power.
Programs and churches are often already set up with Boomers at the center. We program around the needs and wishes of Boomers…as well as folks who are educated, have a certain level of wealth, and are able-bodied. When a group is already at the center of what we do, I bristle at the notion that we are marginalizing them. Could we do more Outreach to Boomers to tell the story of St. Paul’s and invite them to come and feel welcomed? Of course!! We could do more Outreach to all people, period. We are still learning how to evangelize in this way. The Maumee Summer Fair was a good start. We showed some of our values and told our story to those who walked by. It is one step. There are many, many more we could take.
Why do I think that Boomers might be at the center of our priorities, programming, and worldview? Here is an example of an article written by a Catholic mom that is informal but shows some of the obstacles others (younger folks, children, those with other cultural understandings, folks without money, those with disabilities, etc.) experience when they come to churches like ours. The specifics of paying for sacramental preparation classes might be different for us, but I think the general ideas are still true at St. Paul’s, as well as most mainline congregations of which I’ve been a part.
I would love to see us put people on the margins in the center, as I think Jesus would have done. Children. Those with mental illness. Those who are poor. Immigrants. People addicted to drugs. What would our church look like with these other folks at the center instead of the white educated elite?
This is not a criticism of Boomers in any way. I also don’t feel a need to push to reach out to Millennials, or “Families with Young Children,” either. Instead of focusing on being attractive to certain age groups, we should put our energies and focus into building God’s kingdom. This is done through a life of discipleship – Bishop Curry’s “Way of Love,” the 8 spiritual practices that have been foundational to a life of faith since ancient times. When we live the life of disciples – praying, learning, repenting, actively loving, and so on – we build God’s kingdom. This is our calling.
Jesus never said to worry about numbers, or which generations are present in our churches. What I would really, really like is for St. Paul’s to focus on equipping each person to be an active and growing disciple. Discipleship has a cost. It should not be comfortable or easy. Most of us – and most folks in most churches – shy away from the cost. We want church to be about us, having our needs met, with ourselves as the center, not picking up our crosses to follow Jesus to Jerusalem. That is the problem for all churches. We don’t need bells and whistles to try to compete with marketers to entertain people. We don’t slick programming to attract people of certain ages. We need authentic faith: belonging, meaning, and purpose. This is what people truly need. This is what we as the church can uniquely give. True food, not the baby food of entertaining people or creating a program that caters to their preferences.
Yes, God is in the ground of our faith. But who do we put in the center of our communal life? Who has a voice and a place at the table? Whose needs and experiences are valued at St. Paul’s, as evidenced by our programming and policies? And how could we seek to include more people in that center? This is the question I’m wrestling with as part of the vision journey. I hope you’ll share with me how you think we can flip the circle inside out to experience God’s will “on earth, as it is in heaven.”
Deacon Jennifer Vasquez