There are two sorts of struggling churches.
Some are churches that didn’t thrive in the first place. These churches never surpassed the church planting or house church stage which means their active member base remained fewer than thirty to fifty members. Most start-up churches fail.
There are also churches that had once thrived, still have buildings, endowments and assets, but are now positioned in an urban cultural context that has left them with far fewer members than in their glory days.
I want to talk about the second sort of church, the once-successful-but-now-struggling congregation with a building, endowment, small congregation, great pastor and mostly elderly congregants. Specifically, I want to explore how some of these evangelical churches in Paris can thrive as well as what’s keeping them down. I’ll do this in bullet points because it organizes my disparate thoughts. I confess that, once again, I’m thinking and learning as I type. Please forgive me.
- Paris has lost about a third of the population in the last century. Furthermore, this population has changed: there are far fewer large families, extended families and children; far more singles, living-togethers, divorcees and sole parents. Since most churches are multigenerational, these changes have devastated the base from which a church would normally draw. Churches, then, must begin any foray into increasing their cultural impact by squarely facing these demographic facts, strategizing around these facts and setting realistic goals.
- In traditional evangelical churches, the average age of congregants has risen at the same rate that the overall percentage of families with children declined. Today’s mostly elderly congregants often find it more satisfying to chat among their kind, but if a church is serious about revitalization, growth and revival, these older folk need to get off their saggy duffs and do more. Wisdom is inherent in age, or should be. Silverbacks in the church are responsible for leading it forward, not the youth or young and middle-aged families.
- The community from which evangelicals draw is demographically more diverse than it used to be. I’m restraining myself from going on a riff on this, but suffice it to say that diverse groups require a cultural touchstone. This touchstone is the shared and uniform way of believing and behaving specific to a general culture or nation. Without such a cultural touchstone, centrifugal forces will pull apart not only the culture, but the church.
- In other words, diversity is predicated on homogeneity. The homogeneous core of a place which is the actual “stuff” that makes a culture cohere, is the touchstone described above. It’s quite easy, unfortunately, to destroy that core. Secularism has done this. So has immigration. Both secularism and immigration cause the homogeneous remnant to hunker down in ways both invisible and silent. From the standpoint of the church, this is very wrong. Terribly. Unless the base gets up and asserts itself as France’s Christians, immigrants will devolve to secularism and secularists will continue to destroy the integrating, homogeneous forces that sustain a culture which are a shared language, shared religion and shared identity. There MUST be something for seculars and immigrants to integrate into. Something solid. The base of the core is the Christian religion. This is, in large part, the responsibility of the church.
- Although the larger culture naturally creates centrifugal, anti-homogenizing forces, individuals within the culture naturally create like-minded, homogenized subcultures — as individuals socialize, they press toward homogeneity writ small at the same time, and perhaps instigated by, the cultural forces pressing the culture at large toward heterogeneity. This is a lousy sentence: my fuzzy thinking is making fuzzy sentences.
- Let me try again. We have a tendency to conflate these two forces even though they pull and push in opposing directions. From a bird’s eye view, the common culture is obviously disintegrating — from the view of the individual looking up, the disintegrating culture can be ignored as long as there’s a congenial subculture within it. Cultures have always been parceled into subcultures — this is normal social behavior — but when subcultures have no touchstone, no dominant culture to which they all refer, these heterogeneous groups inevitably shred the larger whole into pieces. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to reach across groups. That’s why immigration and secularism are so damaging to society. It’s simply easier to bunk with your own kind than face the otherness of a neighboring subculture that you can ignore with impunity. Furthermore, there’s no logical reason to champion diversity other than to give lip service which pleases powerful Secularists.
- In France today, subcultures are defined more by religion than race, class or any of the other boringly repeated sociological categories. Muslims strongly bind together as a group, for example, rarely marrying out or associating with those outside their religion. Christians hunker down invisibly in small churches. Secularists seem to roam freely, without realizing that they, too, are a religious group that both rejects and is rejected by the other great religions. In France, the great historic religions are Secularism, Christianity and Islam. There was a time when France was Catholic. Then, Seculars overturned Catholicism to make themselves the dominant religion. Now, Muslims are muscling in on the Seculars and Christian remnant. In the midst of this, evangelical Protestants are desperately trying to create or maintain a cultural toehold.
- Perceived homogeneity is a incredibly strong force. It binds people like nothing else. Most people want to live peacefully by avoiding conflict and dissention so they find others like themselves, in whatever ways they define likeness. The church exists in the midst of this. I’m not sure why, but many churches adopted this religious tenet of Secularism: diversity is good; homogeneity is evil. This is wrong. It’s not Christian. It’s not even sensible.
- Obviously, two people make a heterogeneous group. Three, more so. Any group, then, is, heterogeneous. It’s the degree of difference that matters, not the fact of it’s existence. That degree can be extreme. People who speak different first languages, dress and eat differently, value and idealize different things, worship different Gods and work in different ways … yet live in the same city will NOT connect with each other. The forces between them are repulsive, not attractive.
- Thriving churches have figured out where to sit on a fulcrum that teeters between homogeneity and homogeneity. They’ve figured out, perhaps intuitively, that diverse churches do not thrive unless they break into homogeneous subgroups. Many successful churches in diverse environment create sub-churches, often with different worship times/languages/peoples. Yesterday, walking home from Sunday service, I passed a church that had about forty people waiting to get inside. All were Asian … possibly of Hindu origin. They had created their own worshipping group within a congregation of Scots-Presbyterians. In other words, the dominant core of that church was the culture formed by Presbyterian Scotsmen and women. The Scots dealt with diversity by spinning off a second church that used their building and took their name, while not overlapping culturally. It seemed to work.
- A thriving church is the primary social centre and identity for those who belong. This is really important. Ideally, members of a church consider each other to be first or inner cache of social loyalties and relationships. Nothing else should come close. Clubs, workplaces, friendships and avocational interests are subsidiary to the primary role the church plays in the social life of it’s congregants. This is why, in church, we refer to each other as brethren — we’re verbally miming the closeness of familial relationships.
- In every human being, there’s a yearning for roots or connection to ancestors we feel we are like, deep within. I’m an American with 17th century British ancestors who intermarried for hundreds of years (until my father married a Scandinavian woman!) I feel a strong connection to England and, to a lesser degree, France. I know this seems like genetic determinism run amok, but still, I feel this. It’s gut-level. Yes, this is taboo to write, but perhaps there’s a genetic component to perceived commonality that people intuit almost viscerally — having said this, I believe the cultural component is much, much stronger. It is simply the case that people from a cultural background similar to your own are those with whom you feel most comfortable worshiping. It’s not sin to seek out culturally similar people for your core group: it is a sin to reject others, however.
- When the church embraces these core relationships, it becomes influential in the community. There’s a connection between cultural power and cultural homogeneity, in other words. Core relationships bind a group into phalanx before the secular state, Secularism and immigrant groups. When churches become our FIRST social priority, when we bind to each other because we understand each other and share important cultural markers, we create cultural power. This power is derived from these relationships. We should use this power to impact the community that surrounds us, and to become, once again, France’s cultural core.
- Evangelical churches in France need to be revived. To do this they must first see themselves as the core of France. It’s quite possible to talk about evangelism until we’re blue, but if we don’t have something to evangelize, something earthly and practical, no one will come to our churches. This can be done. It’s not a question of starting another church program but of perceiving what we have as what the culture desperately needs — WE ARE THE CORE. Churches don’t need expensive and extensive ministries to various subgroups if this core is maintained.
- It’s a balancing act: too much in-grouping destroys outreach — too much diversity destroys the core. Evangelism always causes the core of the group to slightly move. Outreach involves change, though not too much. A church needs the new ideas that come from including people who are close to the core and moving toward it, but are not quite there. That core must be protected, cherished and given theological shape.
That’s it, folks. These are my amorphous thoughts of the day. They’re forming slowly. I’ll write more when I think more clearly about this issues. Right now, I’m in the fog. My ideas are in flux and will surely change.