Ministry used to be simpler it seems.
You had your kids, your youth, your adults and your seniors. You could tell who was who simply by looking at them. Then you knew what to do.
Kids? Play-Doh, cookies and Bible stories would get the job done. Youth? Some pizza, ping pong and discussion topics got you through it.
Adults? Go with small groups, a Valentine’s Day banquet and a marriage enrichment seminar. Seniors? A trip to an art museum with a nice lunch, pastoral visits in the home and Sunday school did nicely.
Those were simpler times. Ministry is not so simple anymore; you need a program to tell the players.
Boomers were not such a big complication; if someone was not a child, a youth or a senior, they were likely a boomer. Now we have Builders, Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z.
David Kinnaman expands the categories, writing about Nomads and Prodigals and Exiles in his book “You Lost Me – Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church.”
Don’t forget about the Nones, as in “none of the above” on surveys about religious devotion.
This increasingly “none of the above” portion of our society has no tethering to any type of faith community and has little feeling for any clearly articulated religious convictions.
Amid all this good analytical work, we who care about congregations and faith sometimes feel overwhelmed. With the growing numbers of Nones, we can live under a cloud of discouragement.
At those times I remind myself of Andries, a man that I met at De Pelgrim Evangelische Baptistengemeente (Pilgrim Evangelical Baptist Church) in Oostende, Flanders, where I was interim pastor for several years.
Flanders is a wonderful place to live. The Flemish are intelligent, caring, hard-working and masters at baking bread and making chocolate.
The schools are great and the traffic orderly. The Flemish care well for the elderly, the young and the poor among them.
Flanders is, however, thoroughly secular. Religious faith has been eschewed by all but a small minority. They see the church, historically, as an oppressive institution and are glad it has been pushed to the margin of society.
One man said to me, “We worked for so long to be free of the church, why would we want it back?” They consider God, in a practical sense, dead.
Andries was a typical Flemish man: reserved, private, sober and thoroughly secular. He believed God was the main character in a fairy tale that modernity and science had put the lie to.
When I met him, he was still a pretty sober guy but no longer secular. He had, some years before, become a Christian convert.
He shared with me that before he became a Christian, he felt nothing deeply. He did not feel fear or hope, sorrow or joy, anxiety or peace. He was numb in his heart, he said.
When he became a believer, he said that he “became alive in my heart for the first time.” He began to feel things deeply – joy and sorrow, hope and disappointment, longing and contentment.
I remember Andries when I consider the present trends in our society. He was the very personification of agnosticism in a deliberately secularized society. Yet the spirit of God got through to him.
There was a beachhead of vulnerability within his anesthetized heart. He had a spiritual capacity for responsiveness that he did not know he possessed. I find that hopeful.
When I encounter people that have no interest in religious faith and no regard for communities of faith, I try not to think of them as bad or pagan or rejecters of God.
Rather, I try to think of them as numb, as people who do not fully appreciate what lies dormant within them.
I believe there is a capacity in each of us capable of yielding to God and embracing the beauty of the gospel – even if we do not all yet know it. When I remember Andries, I feel hopeful and I try to wake up some things in people.
Executive minister of the American Baptist Churches-New York State.