Trusting the Spirit

By Rev. Amy J. Odgren

I just read an article on church change that began by pointing to a demographic dilemma of a chain restaurant and likening that to the position that many churches find themselves in today.  Hang with me as I recount what I read.

Bill Knapp's was a Michigan institution. Most of the restaurants in the chain were built exactly alike, so they were instantly recognizable. You could walk into a Bill Knapp's anywhere in the state and immediately feel at home. The food was good and the menu changed seldom, if ever. And they had a fiercely loyal clientele. But Bill Knapp's paid a terrible price for their decades of keeping everything the same. Their loyal customers got older. The hungry college students who thought about going there called it the "old folks' home."  The chain's aging demographic must have caught the attention of the folks at corporate headquarters as well. They evidently realized that unless they recruited younger diners, their restaurants would die along with their customers.

So they changed. They tried to attract young families. They installed video games and playtime activities for the younger set. They dropped some old favorites from the menu and updated the fare. They started an advertising blitz with a new slogan: "That was then; this is WOW!"

It didn't work. No amount of décor and advertising could erase the widespread impression that Knapp's was "your grandmother's restaurant." Even worse, the changes at Knapp's alienated their traditional clientele. The older folks didn't like the new décor, menu, or games. You can guess the end of the story - Bill Knapp's is no more. Out of business. Bankrupt. Meanwhile, several newer restaurants flourish.

For so many years, our churches have been somewhat similar: you can walk into an ELCA church most anywhere and feel right at home. The order of worship is almost identical. The prayers use familiar phraseology. The sermons are drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary. Many of our buildings look alike. And the clientele is fiercely loyal.  And we're in the midst of a demographic shift that perplexes us. We're getting older, dramatically so, even as we want so desperately to be relevant and attract young people around us. 

And yet, as people of hope - as people who trust and have faith - we pray for God's guidance, and humbly open ourselves to whatever direction God leads us.  We want to be vibrant and meet the changing needs of younger people, while remaining the meaningful cornerstone that many of us have come to expect and be comforted by within this community of faith. Yet, we seek to have others find that same meaning. And the last thing we want is for others to find us too wedded to unvarying practice, too mired in issues that make no sense to them. In other words - maybe what we're saying is that we don't want to be known as "your grandmother's church."

So what did I take away from reading the article?  There is a difference between the church and Bill Knapp's. Knapp's had a marketing department, albeit one that failed to keep up with what the community required and desired.  But the church has the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit alone can bring new life. My guess is that the Holy Spirit has a future in mind for us that none of us can quite envision yet. I would be surprised if this future involves us clinging desperately to all the old ways for fear of losing our heritage or longtime members. But I also doubt that the Holy Spirit wants to see us caught up in a bunch of gee-whiz, "that was then, this is WOW" marketing schemes.

My hope is that we will pray for the Spirit's guidance, and then be humbly open to whatever direction we are lead. Our June 7th vote is quickly approaching. I am so proud to be serving in ministry with a congregation who is courageous enough to put everything on the table - even a partnership with another congregation - placing it there for God to either use or jettison: physical facilities, ministry staff, outreach and mission, our favorite programs and treasured physical items-everything. Because if we can do that, trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit fully, then we will have a sure future.  - AO