'Broad Minded' Church Growth?

Visit all of the churches in an American city on the same Sunday and the experience would feel something like channel surfing on cable television.

Click. A lecture. Click. Stand-up comedy. Click. Self-esteem tips. Click. A stone vault with statues. Click. A high-tech arena. Click. Classical music. Click. Bouncy pop. Click. People in three- piece suits. Click. Folks who appear to be doing the wave.

The ratings for some of these churches are way down and their age demographics are way up. These facts are hard to avoid.

"Many times I have heard my colleagues say, as they look at the preponderance of people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s in major leadership positions in the church, `Where will my church be in 10 years?' This is a good question," wrote Father Christopher Chamberlin Moore, in a national Episcopal newsletter. "Where will the church be ... if we do not nurture future generations?"

This raises another question: Can churches make major stylistic changes without offending the faithful? Clergy fear -- with good reason -- that older members will stay home, or sit on their wallets, when drums appear in the sanctuary.

Perhaps the answer is "parallel development," a strategy that calls for adding the new without burying the old, said Moore, who served as communications director for the Diocese of New Jersey before moving to Holy Comforter Parish in Drexel Hill, Pa. One church might add a Mass targeting baby boomer families, another new self-help programs for its neighbors. A large church might even offer simultaneous Sunday services -- formal rites in the sanctuary and another in the fellowship hall for "seekers."

These are not new ideas in church growth circles. Still, many oldline church leaders have declined to take these kinds of steps, in part because they do not want to be associated with methods used by conservatives. Moore is convinced that adopting some megachurch methods does not mean adopting their theology. For example, he noted that a recent Connecticut study found signs of growth in some "Broad Minded" as well as "Jesus Focused" parishes.

But this raises yet another question: If growing churches offer more rites and programs, why not go further and allow members to set their own theological agendas? Spiritualities 'R' Us?

In the study cited by Moore, the Rev. Peter A.R. Stebinger of Hartford Seminary said that "Jesus Focused" churches focus on traditional doctrine, while "Broad Minded" parishes assume that, beyond sharing a few core beliefs about God, members will take different stands on other issues.

"Growth in holiness is linked less to a specific doctrinal stance and more to a subjective sense of deepening connection to God," wrote Stebinger. In "Jesus Focused" churches "holiness is inextricably linked to the person of Jesus Christ. ... The Bible is the key source of authority, a marked contrast from the Broad Minded congregations, where the locus of authority is largely in the individual's experience."

Moore said he felt relieved to finally see some data about growth -- even modest growth -- in a circle of liberal churches.

"For so long, it seemed like we only had two choices," he said. "We could go the charismatic-fundamentalist route and see our churches grow. ... Well, that isn't a road many Episcopalians or other mainline people like us will want to take. The other choice was to take the mainline-liberal road and face numerical decline. That's not much of a choice."

Conservative churches tell people that "Jesus is the answer," said Moore. "Broad Minded" churches must find a way to be just as urgent while delivering a more nuanced message.

"Jesus is the answer, but we have to have tolerance for the many ways in which people come to grasp that and the ways in which they try to live that out," he said. "Broad Minded" churches that want to grow will "teach that there are different paths people can take to God, but the church is still where they should go to take that journey. ... If we don't get that last part of the message across, then we'll be in trouble."