“The clock is ticking for this tomato,” stated Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, a social entrepreneur from Nigeria, holding up a single red tomato. At Impact Hub Seattle on July 6, 2015, he described an inventive new refrigerated food storage unit, the ColdHub, essentially, a shipping container with solar-powered refrigeration for produce in communities where no electricity is available. These refrigerated storage units could be located in public markets throughout Nigeria, dramatically expanding the life of a tomato from two days to twenty-one days for a modest storage fee. This would mean a dramatic increase in the fresh food supply for consumers, greater income for farmers and vendors, and an enormous reduction in agricultural waste.
The clock is ticking, and not only for produce but also for people and the planet. The clock is ticking for sixty million refugees from the Middle East who are seeking a safe haven for their families. The clock is ticking for tens of millions of young people who can’t find work, not only in the Middle East and Africa but around the globe. The clock is ticking for the earth, as we seem to be unable to stop dumping our garbage in the ocean and the atmosphere.
Why would any follower of Jesus want to miss discovering how to make a little difference in our troubled world?
The good news is that God seems to be at work not only through people of faith but also people of compassion who are bringing welcome change to our world in what some are calling an “innovation revolution.” In the last ten years, there has been a veritable explosion of new forms of social innovations, like the ColdHub, all over the planet.
Much of this new effort is being led by young innovators from Gen Y (those born between 1981 and 1997) and Gen Z (those born between 1998 and 2014). As the first digital generations, they seem to be more aware of the daunting social, economic, and environmental challenges facing our world. Most importantly, a surprising number of them are determined to do something about it. Even though research shows that some in Gen Y and Gen Z do feel more entitled, I want to join, support, and learn from those who want to use their lives to impact the lives of others.
I believe the Spirit of God may well be using the lives of these young social innovators, who are largely outside the church, to entice and challenge those of us in the churches to become more involved in making a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors. Why would any follower of the servant Jesus want to settle for less and miss discovering how God can more fully use our lives to make a little difference in our troubled world?
Major concerns expressed by millennials who have left our churches include a lack of authenticity, a lack of involvement in working for social and environmental change.
And now for the bad news. While the church is enjoying rapid growth in China, a number of African nations, and other countries, this regrettably is not true for many churches in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, and other Western nations. I have had the opportunity, over more than three decades, to consult for and learn from leaders in mainline denominations like the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mennonite Church, the United Methodist Church, and the American Baptist Church. I remember, in the early 1980s, showing leaders of a number of mainline denominations that not only were their denominations beginning to gray but their attendance was beginning to decline significantly as well. Now leaders are more aware of these sharp declines but are scrambling to find ways to reverse the trend. Alan Roxburgh, in a thoughtful analysis of the efforts of denominational leaders to deal with the hemorrhaging they are facing, calls this “the great unraveling” of the “Eurotribal denominations.”
These days I find the leaders of evangelical denominations are often the ones struggling with denial about the potential long-term impact of declining attendance and aging populations in many of their congregations. While some ethnic and immigrant churches in the West are experiencing more growth than most white churches, the ticking of the clock seems to be accelerating in mainline denominations in the West. In North America they are declining at a rate of 1 percent to 4 percent a year. Leaders in these denominations increasingly express concern about how declining numbers are causing serious reductions in the resources they are able to invest in local and global missions. As we race into the 2020s, I predict we are likely to see not only an accelerating decline in numbers but also a dramatic decline in the investment of time and money in projects to empower our most vulnerable neighbors. I hear growing numbers of leaders in these organizations ask an urgently important question: “Does the future have a church?”
Lovett Weems, a leader in the United Methodist Church, offers us an arresting answer. In an article in Faith and Leadership, he uses the provocative phrase “death tsunami” to describe his view of the future of many mainline churches, including his own. Essentially, he argues that the current rate of decline is not constant. Since many of our mainline congregations comprise members of the Silent generation (those born between 1925 and 1945) and Boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), the rate of decline will accelerate. Weems urges us to wake up to this huge tsunami wave that is headed our way while we still have time to act. He predicts that this trend is likely to accelerate most rapidly after 2020.
God seems to be stirring up the compassion and imagination of people largely outside the tent to remind us that our neighbors matter and real change is possible.
To compound this growing crisis, we are losing members under forty at a rate we have never seen before. A Pew Research Center report titled, “Millennials Increasingly Are Driving the Growth of the ‘Nones’” identified “nones” as those who identify as unaffiliated with any religious group. Whereas only 11 percent of the Silent generation describe themselves as unaffiliated, for the millennials the figure is more than three times higher, at 35 percent. Some of the major concerns expressed by millennials who have left our churches include a lack of authenticity, a lack of involvement in working for social and environmental change, and the preoccupation with institutional maintenance.
Also leaving our churches are the “dones.” According to Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, authors of Church Refugees, these Christians, who are multigenerational, are leaving churches in the US because, like many millennials, they are looking for ways to invest in working for change in the lives of their neighbors.
A number of mainline churches still sponsor seminars on social justice and environmental stewardship. Many evangelical congregations continue to hold an annual missions conference that reflects their global concerns. However, in working with a spectrum of mainline and evangelical churches in North America, I have found that although many congregations contribute to the local food bank or rescue mission, they rarely sponsor a single ministry in their own communities that would enable their neighbors or communities to become more self-reliant.
The problem with food banks is that while they do help people meet their immediate food needs, they do little to enable them to move beyond a lifestyle of dependency. What’s more, when aging churches close down, support for the food banks also disappears. Of course, there are congregations involved in a range of alternatives to the charity model of care. For example, Bridge of Hope enables local congregations all over the US to develop a team of eight to twelve people who receive training in how to empower a single parent and her children to become more self-sufficient. Janice and her son, Tony, met with their support team at their Chicago church every month for a year to share a meal and a conversation. The team enabled Janice to find a good job and a safe place near the church to live.
I urge all of our churches to become involved in this kind of serious empowerment. Don’t we all need to wake up to the stunning new reality that “business as usual” will no longer serve? Is it possible that large numbers of churches have settled for simply being chaplains to the dominant culture? Is it possible that they have settled for simply helping nurture us in a fairly private faith while enabling us to limp through our week? Is it possible that we could be missing out on using our mustard seeds to join those who are creating their best neighborhoods, their best world, and, in the process, their best lives?
Isn’t the call to work for the well-being of both humankind and God’s good creation central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus?
Walter Brueggemann, in his recent book Sabbath as Resistance, offers readers a clear alternative to the dominant “culture of now,” which in his view is preoccupied with a driven acquisitiveness, consumerism, and self-involved lifestyles. He reminds us that Jesus calls us away from mammon to a new Sabbath way of being by redefining what is important, what is of value, so that we have time for both devotion to God and care for our neighbors. Brueggemann states, “Sabbath is an arena in which we learn to recognize that we live by gift and not by possession.” He observes that the great crisis in our world today “is a crisis of the common good,” and that concern for the common good “reaches beyond private interest,” which has become the driving force of the global economy. He also reminds us that this concern is the vocation of both the children of Israel and those of us who follow Jesus. Isn’t the call to work for the well-being of both humankind and God’s good creation central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus?
The good news is that the Creator God is still at work today stirring up new possibilities. To be genuine followers of Jesus, we need to start by embracing a more authentic whole-life faith, which entails investing more of our time in being more present to both God and to neighbors – if we want those outside the church to take us seriously. However, we also need to plant new churches that are much more invested in compassionate changemaking, instead of focusing our resources on the needs of those of us under the tent.
God seems to be stirring up the empathy, compassion, and imagination of people largely outside the tent to remind us that our neighbors and neighborhoods matter and real change is possible. As the authors of The New Parish put it, “God is up to something in neighborhoods, on the ground, in real places. The church, in all its diversity, needs to figure out how to join in.” God has chosen to use the insignificant and ordinary to change the world, which should give us all a little hope. Consider this an invitation to discover how God might use your mustard seed to make a difference in ways you might find surprising and welcome. Ask the Creator God to ignite your imagination to join others in creating our best communities, our best world, and in the process our best lives – in ways that both advance something of God’s purposes and respond to some of tomorrow’s urgent opportunities and challenges.
Want to learn more and find out how you can put your mustard seed to work? Check out: www.newchangemakers.com.