The Next Congregationalism

Posted: December 8, 2022 in Uncategorized

by Justin Berkobien

Published in The Congregationalist Magazine, September 2022

HOW DO WE GET YOUNG PEOPLE TO COME TO OUR CHURCH? This is the question many Congregational church leaders like me have been asking. We have been watching our congregations age and shrink for decades. We have watched thousands of once-thriving churches close their doors. We worry we are on track to do the same. 

Some have resorted to consumeristic methods in order to attract young people. They install a projector in the sanctuary. They launch a contemporary worship service. They hire a twelve year-old lead pastor. One problem with this approach is that there is almost always a bigger church nearby that has more resources and can better appeal to the perceived preferences of the youthful. The other problem with this approach is that it attempts to provide an answer to the wrong question. 

We have been asking, how do we get young people to come to OUR church? We are asking as the hosts, the property owners, the old guard, the defenders of the glory days when the parking lot was full. We are asking as the ones who are in control and will remain in control if and when these hypothetical young people arrive. If they happen to visit they are not likely to stick around very long. Today’s young people speak a different language. They live in a different world. Our churches are ill-equipped to help them navigate the challenges of their lives. They will therefore draw the quiet conclusion that we are out of touch and slip away before they can be asked to join a committee. We have been asking, how do we get young people to come to our church? We need to ask a new question. 

What is God already doing in the lives of young people in our area and how are we being called to join in that work? This, I suggest, is the question we should be asking prayerfully. Asking this question will help us understand the young people we claim to want in our churches. Asking this question will lead us toward identifying Spirit-led actions that bear fruit beyond any of our lifespans. Asking this question will unlock our minds so that we can begin to imagine the next Congregationalism. 

I realize what I am suggesting will cause discomfort, but what comfortable things have led to meaningful revitalization in our churches? I also realize the thought of relinquishing control is scary but, if we are truly Congregational churches, shouldn’t we be continuously relinquishing control to Christ, the head of the church? I fear we have too often prevented the Lord from leading. I fear we have relied too heavily on business strategies and consultants and overly-confident pastors. I fear many of our churches have ironically dug their own graves while fighting for their lives, and I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of fighting. I’m ready to surrender the life of our church to Jesus. If we close our doors tomorrow or carry on another hundred years, let the Lord decide. 

What is God already doing in the lives of young people in our area and how are we being called to join in that work? Now it is entirely possible that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us that we are not being called to join God at work in the lives of young people. In this scenario we need not necessarily panic. A church in retirement mode might get by alright as long as there are new retirees to replace the ones that pass on. But I sincerely hope the Holy Spirit provides a different answer because the prospects of the next Congregationalism are very exciting. 

The next Congregationalism will transform individuals, families, and communities. Unencumbered from yesterday’s growth rate expectations, future Congregationalists will reclaim the strength of smallness. They will be content to gather in twos and threes in Jesus’ name.  A handful of college students will write worship songs and share them online with the world. A network of home-school moms/teachers will start a Bible study for children with special needs. A pair of veterans will organize a grief and loss support group. A stunningly high percentage of the next Congregationalists will embrace their priesthood as believers though few will don the robe and stole. 

The next Congregationalism will be missional and radically hospitable. Attuned to the leading of the Spirit, the next Congregationalists will unite across cultural and political divides and embody the gospel in every aspect of their lives. Believers of disparate economic and ethnic backgrounds will gather around the Lord’s table together. Business norms will be replaced by kingdom values. Pastors will serve as a team of unranked equals. All concerned will share their faith with boldness and great joy. 

The next Congregationalism will develop alongside, not over-against, existing Congregationalism. Unlike our founders, future Congregationalists will not have endured tyranny. They will not be angry or embittered. The distinctions in their ecclesiology will be based only on their unique contexts. They will translate the gospel into their strange young people languages and we will often wonder if they’ve strayed too far from tradition, but they will be like our adult children and we will be like their parents. They will come to us from time to time seeking advice. We will go to them constantly seeking technological assistance. All of us together will celebrate Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. Eventually our children, the next Congregationalists, might move in with us and take care of us as our health declines. In some instances they might inherit the homes we’ve taken such good care of all these years. 

Truly successful churches are not measured by how long they can prevent their doors from closing but by how faithful they are while their doors remain open. I pray we will not be so focused on ourselves that we neglect to prayerfully consider how we might join God at work in the lives of young people. I pray we will not be so concerned with the threat of closing our churches that we fail to open the door for the next Congregationalism.

Rev. Justin Berkobien is an Associate Minister at Oneonta Congregational Church in South Pasadena, CA where he lives with his wife, Julie, and their three children. He writes a weekly devotional series, “Let Us Hope,” and is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. 

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