Trusting This Generation

Tim Ahrens ’85 M.Div.

During my nearly 16 years as senior minister of First Congregational Church (UCC) in downtown Columbus, Ohio, five of 11 downtown churches have closed. Of the remaining six, two are in decline, two are holding their own, and two are growing.

Since January 2000, my congregation has doubled in size and grown younger every year – membership today is 1,119 adults and 324 children. A third of the church is now millennials. Born between 1981-2001, this rockin’ rollin’ middle of the congregation is exciting, joyful, energizing, and at times unnerving and exasperating. Let me explain.

Over time, our congregation has drawn up a series of three-year long-range plans to guide our future. We dream together, focus our vision, and put it into action. The current committee is half millennials, half 35 and older. One co-chair is a millennial pastor, the other a 60-something creative genius.

Where Were They?

At a recent planning meeting, most of our millennials were missing. At first, I was a little disturbed by their absence. I had worked hard to get them on the committee. But, in truth, they had more important places to be that night. One was leading the charge to change local ordinances to grant LGBTQ persons employment benefits and equal recognition under the law. Another was organizing a “Black Lives Matter” march. Another was leading a businesswomen’s retreat for rising stars in our city. Another was home with her young son who was sick. They were all in places of leadership, parenting, and activism where we really needed them that night.

At another meeting, one young millennial said, “We need to figure out how to help people give to the church. How can we be good stewards – or whatever the word is you use?” It turns out this dynamic local entrepreneurial leader doesn’t have a checkbook. But she does make her bill payments online, and she felt we could improve our congregational efforts through the latest technology. It turned out that four other millennials on the committee have never used a checkbook either. It was a jaw-dropping moment for our older leaders. The generations do life and church very differently.

Recently a young couple in their early 20s stopped me in the parking lot after worship. They love our church and worship. They considered themselves “members” even though they had only been to church twice in the last six months and I had never met them. They began to quote my sermons which they read and listen to on our website. They had tweeted, texted, and Facebooked my writings and homilies. As we stood there, they started asking pointed questions about the details of recent sermons. Although they did not attend regular worship, they were tuned in and very much in touch! Now if only we could hook them up for direct deposit weekly tithing…

Yes, it is an exciting time to be the church.

Mending Body and Soul

What makes for a flourishing congregation today? In our case, I believe it is a passion for social justice combined with a clear sense of loving and serving people – their physical and spiritual needs – right where we meet them. Love and justice, prayer and merciful ministries are woven together in our fabric of faith. At the heart of it all in the heart of Ohio is meaningful worship, with quality music, prayers, preaching, and Christ’s powerful presence.

These keep us growing in faith and action.

On June 26, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality, we opened our doors to the greater Columbus area for an evening service of celebration. We called it our “Decision Day” service. It offered poetry, scripture, hymns, and songs of joy. Hundreds of people gathered. They found us through Twitter and Facebook. Our friends at Equality Ohio counted it among the glorious celebrations of that monumental day. Those who came were of all faiths and no faith, all races and nationalities. LGBTQ and straight men, women, and children gathered to pray and praise God.

The Spirit of Gladden

What Washington Gladden, a patriarch of the Social Gospel movement and our senior minister from 1882-1918, called “the Municipal Church” was alive that night. The Municipal Church serves the city on urgent issues of the day. In Gladden’s words, “The Municipal Church is the church uniting to investigate and alleviate human suffering. … It is the church recovering the sacred and vital functions which, in their division, have suffered to lapse.” (The Ohio State Journal, October 1892)

The spirit of the Social Gospel moves within the rising generation. They are seeking to serve and alleviate human suffering. They know the planet and all its inhabitants cannot continue to spiral down. They know the church cannot continue to spiral down. What millennials bring to the task is an endearing spirit of enthusiasm and joy. They come to this project called “church” from many directions, with possibilities for both personal transformation and congregational renewal.

How do we honor that spirit from day to day? In our rapidly aging congregations, we need to trust millennial leaders and their new ways of doing things. We need to put them in charge and lead us forward. Our old ways aren’t winning the new day. Let’s try something different.

This can be harder than it sounds.

Last fall, I turned the stewardship campaign over to a millennial leader. I had some misgivings. He and his group of young organizers met in pubs and Paneras to plan our campaign. They challenged the congregation to “Imagine More.” It was a simple, clear message that spoke to the heart. Disregarding most of our traditional communication procedures, the young leaders created excellent new materials, which they distributed themselves. The congregation responded by stepping up and into our best stewardship campaign in the church’s 163-year history. Our giving grew by 15 percent – but the spirit of giving grew even more.

“I Got This”

At one point I was asking all sorts of questions about the campaign. Our young leader said, “Tim, you have to trust me and let me lead. I got this.” He was right. He had it. Although it looked, sounded, and felt different from anything we had done before, he delivered the church ahead of where we had ever been before. The less anxious I became the more successful our young leaders became. Letting God work through our youthful visionaries worked for all of us.

Every day I feel a deep sense of gratitude to be serving the church in this generation. When I read reports of an increasing number of non-affiliated people, I see possibilities, not problems. When I see the culture shifting away from traditional ways of doing church and pouring into the streets of need and the avenues of greed to address the wrongs of our times, I see hope. When I hear people say they don’t like “organized religion,” I invite them to join us, adding, “as Congregationalists we are rather ‘disorganized’ and ‘not very religious,’ so you might feel at home here.” Most show up at some point and many find a place called home.

We need to trust our rising leaders to be the change we know we need. When we empower them to step up and lead, good things will happen.

The Rev. Tim Ahrens ’85 M. Div. received YDS’s William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice in 2008. This year he earned a D.Min. from Chicago Theological Seminary. His thesis was entitled: “Young and Growing Stronger: Creating a Model of Social Justice with a New Generation of 21st-Century Prophetic Witness Leaders.”