In the past 12 years I’ve preached at countless Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregational and Swedenborgian congregations nearly every Sunday. But, I could count on two hands the number of congregations who had worshipers younger than me.
During this same period, I baptized six adults and two children. Only the children were baptized in congregations. The adults, who were almost all younger than I was, asked me to baptize them in bars, restaurants and gardens. Each of these baptisms was accompanied by a story about how the individuals had become estranged from congregational worship.
With each baptism, I thought about all the people who have declared that the Lutheran church is dying and aging. Is it true, or are we pushing people away and letting people believe the lie that they are unable to be loved by God. And if people gain church membership through their baptism, then why are so few members choosing to attend worship?
When I was called as the pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in San Francisco’s Sunset District this past February, it was a unanimous vote of 16 members. At my first council meeting, we gave thanks to the long-serving treasurer who was retiring at the age of 90.
When other people talk about Grace, they say it’s dying and aging. Renters are nervous that the congregation will run out of money or close. Colleagues worry that the congregation is in a neighborhood where people aren’t interested in church and think it should move.
Yet, I still believe that Grace will grow. In fact, Grace is already growing, with three new members, one through adult baptism, in the past few months. While we’re certainly headed in the right direction, this small growth at a small congregation in San Francisco isn’t really enough to declare that the ELCA is growing and able to reach out to younger members.
One day, after a home visit to some members, I heard about the wonderful parties Grace used to throw back in the days when they were younger and had higher attendance. It inspired me to throw a gala in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the congregation’s Infant Care Center.
After making some fancy invitations that we sent to all the families who had infants at the center over the years, I promptly got lost in Lent and Easter preparations. A few weeks later our event was almost sold out.
Our Easter morning service only had one visitor who was new to the congregation, but the following Saturday our fellowship hall was overflowing with more than 120 visitors, including about 45 children. It was then that I realized that the attendance on Sunday is not the only way to fill a congregation. Those 16 members of the congregation who voted to call me are matched by 15 beautiful infants who fill our church with laughter five days a week.
We are not an aging church! Some congregations have simply forgotten that Sunday morning is not the only day that counts. Congregations can teach young people about God’s love and caring for our neighbors any day of the week, inside their building or in the community at service projects.
And if we are a dying church, it is only because congregations have failed to live up to our end of the baptismal promises. We must find ways to not only reach out to those whom we’ve baptized and lost track of but also to become relevant to their lives.
Remembering the echoing Easter promise that Jesus will bring light to the deepest darkness, I hope you will join me in my irrational optimism for the future of our church. Let’s renew our efforts to ensure our congregations are loving and welcoming spaces for young people, no matter how or when they show up.