I’ve been an ordained minister for more than 20 years now. I was ordained in December of 1998, and since the 20-year mark has passed, I’ve been thinking about the changes in those 20 years. When I was ordained we watched movies at home on VHS players. A few years later DVD players started replacing VHS machines, and now most watch movies and shows through internet streaming services. Back then I had an email address, but the internet was still a clunky thing we accessed through dial-up. A few people had cell phones then; now cell phones are in almost everyone’s hand. Some of the changes feel heavier: back in 1998 the September 11 attacks hadn’t happened yet, and mass shootings were not a regular thing.

Being church was different, too. I often hear pastors and church people say being church is harder these days, but I was curious what the statistics would say. I found a Gallup study that addressed these feelings, and I found the casual observations I hear from others prove to be true. What the study says is church membership in the United States has declined by 20% in the last 20 years, from 70% in 1998 to 50% in 2018. Those numbers will probably continue to decline, too, with only 42% of Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) being a member of a church. When you hear someone lament being church is harder than it used to be, with fewer people and resources today than we had in the past, we can say, statistically, that’s true.

Does all of this just tell us we need to throw up our hands and say we’re doomed? Well, no. If we believe God still calls people together to be church, then we can say God still has something for us to be and do as a church. Can we still do church as though things are the same as they were in previous decades? Well, the answer, again, is no. Faithfulness requires us to ask the question, “What does it mean to be church, a gathering of God’s people, today?” My guess is the answer is different than it was 50 years ago.

If you were a part of the Epiphany Process retreats, then you’ve already been challenged to start to think of these things. To continue the conversation, I’m going to lead four of what I’m calling “Brown Bag Discussions.” If you want to bring a lunch (or just bring yourself), we’ll meet at noon on Wednesdays in Cartwright Hall. We’ll meet the first four Wednesdays of October, starting with October 2. I’ll have something to guide our discussion. We’ll talk about changes in the world and how we’re called to be a church today. My hope is it continues to have us thinking of what God calls us to be as church in this new time in which we’re already living.

Rev. Jason Jones