I recently read church consultant/leadership expert Carey Nieuhoff’s article “Why They’re Not Coming Back to Church (And What to Do with Who’s Left).” Neuhoff’s premise is that all of us in ministry have been waiting for the “Great Return”—for people to come back to our churches and our programs in droves. And while a few places may have experienced this kind of return, for the most part, we’re coming to the “Great Realization” that it’s probably not going to happen. Neuhoff pinpoints some reasons people haven’t returned and some suggestions on how to deal with these realities. On some of his points, I agree. But I also think—it’s complicated...
This is especially true of families. Parents are exhausted from all the ways they juggled their lives, work from home, kids learning from home, so many extra precautions, and soul overload (from work to kids’ safety to kids’ education to the impact on kids’ social skills to religion to politics to climate change, and everything!). It’s been a lot. It’s not that the Great Return will never happen, but it’s not going to happen right now. We need healing, restoration, and reconciliation.
I do agree with Neuhoff that right now we need to focus on the people in front of us, not the ones who haven’t returned. The people in front of you are acting counterculturally just by showing up! We can’t just go back to the way we did things before; instead we need to use the well-earned lessons from these last few pandemic years to really engage people, to give families more authority over their own faith formation (leading them to take ownership for their own spiritual growth), and give them every reason to keep coming back. If the goal is transformation—new life for and in Jesus Christ and a deep faith in Him—then let’s create the environments that allow that kind of transformation.
We learned many things in recent years, but I think more than anything we’ve learned faith formation has to be more personalized. A person can learn about faith in a classroom or a program, but to grow in faith it has to be personal. How do we do that? Well, first, I don’t think there’s ONE way. It’s a myriad of ways—an integrated approach that looks at how we’ve been doing it and imagines something more. An integrated approach looks at opportunities that are gathered (in community), at home, independent (digital perhaps), and sent (also in community—think service, advocacy, and justice).
Gathered: We know how to run programs and offer classes, but today these have to be the best we have to offer, not just reruns of what we’ve always done. How can we meet the needs of our church community? How can we help them connect to each other and to God? How can we help them grow in their understanding of faith, but also their desire to be closer to Jesus? The first step might be listening to what they’re looking for. Another might be allowing parents the opportunity to connect to one another. Plan for storytelling and story-listening. Empower learners to become sharers, witnesses to their own faith growth.
At Home: One thing I’ve heard from parents in the last few years is that they want to feel better equipped to pray with their children, to have faith conversations with their children. Research tells us those two things—faith practices and faith conversations—have the greatest impact in the faith development of a child, so what can we do to empower and equip parents in these two areas? How can we affirm what they are already doing and give them some faith language around the truths they already teach at home—sacrifice, forgiveness, service, and so on. What faith practices and rituals can we give them tools and language for, so that they might be empowered to help their children grow in faith?
Independent learning: How can we, as leaders, become curators of great resources? How can we become architects of an array of learning opportunities, even digitally? Over the course of the last few years I’ve witnessed leaders open up entire worlds to their learners through digital playlists, Google classrooms, and/or learning apps.
Community life: Families living faith in the neighborhood, at school, at work—isn’t that the goal? How do we offer experiences that allow reflection on faith in daily living? How do we empower learners to serve the community, to become advocates for justice and peace? Then how might we gather these stories to become the collectors of faith legacy in the community?
An integrated approach does not focus on only weekly gatherings, but recognizes that families spend time learning and living their faith together, at home and in the community. It gives our learners the opportunity to be a part of the planning of their own faith formation.
In my book, Engage Every Family: A Parish Guide to Integrated Faith Formation, I tell the story of faith communities that did this around specific learning themes or events during the Covid disruption. For example, a lesson on prayer, or around the season of Lent, or any other learning theme. The leader provides a gathered learning session on this specific theme, then allows families to choose from a variety of at home, independent, and community ideas and experiences, equipping families with curated “playlists” as idea buckets from which families can create their own plans for spurring faith conversations and practices at home. A family could choose activities and lessons according to their children’s ages, spiritual interests, or even family schedules. Families choose how they might interact within their communities to live this faith out.
This strategy leads us away from a one-size-fits-all approach and encourages us to meet each person or family where they are and accompany them on the journey in new and extraordinary ways. It’s flexible. It meets families’ needs. It acknowledges the stresses on their lives and allows us to honor their time at home with one another as sacred time. Celebrate the community you have by honoring who they are, what they’ve been through, what we’ve all been through, and in many cases are still going through. If the families who have not returned are going to come back, it will be because the families who are in our community today, those in front of you right now, are nourished, restored, listened to, and known.
Originally published on September 27, 2022 for Vibrant Faith’s Online Community - https://vibrant-faith-catalyst.mn.co/
I share my own thoughts here. They do not represent the opinions of any organization I work with or for. They are my own, and I reserve the right to change them when I please. I am still growing, and learning, and evolving.