July 12, 2022
Recently I saw an old video on YouTube of the great comedian Rodney Dangerfield on the Johnny Carson show.
Of course, Rodney said he “didn’t get no respect.” When he sat next to Johnny, Carson kept asking Rodney questions like: “Do you have any hobbies we don’t know about?”; or “Has your mother-in-law ever complimented you for something?” So it was clear there was no prepared script. Just with adlibs, Dangerfield kept the audience in laughing stitches.
Finally, Rodney was so funny and had Carson laughing so vigorously that Johnny almost fell out of his seat. Carson often referred to Rodney Dangerfield as “the comedians‘ comedian!”
A similar compliment could be paid to Rev. Martha Creek. Many Unity Ministers would honor Martha by saying she is “the ministers’ minister.” Currently, Martha serves as a key advisor to Unity Worldwide Ministries. I can attest to the excellent suggestions and advice she has given me several times.
So it was not surprising that it was standing room only in the grand ballroom when Martha recently spoke at this year’s Unity Worldwide Ministries convention. Not only is she wise, but she is also hilarious like Rodney Dangerfield – only Martha gets a ton of respect!
Martha told us that when she was asked to speak at the convention, the topic she was given was, The Future of Churches? Upon hearing this, Martha took a well-deserved gulp and said, “Are there any other topics I could speak on?” But UWM leaders did not let her off the hook, and I am glad they didn’t.
As Martha looked around the ballroom, she asked, “Does anybody here know about the future of churches? If you do, please raise your hand … because if you know about the future of churches for certain, then you are ready for Ascension!” Nobody in the ballroom raised their hand.
“Well,” said Martha, “I, too, don’t know about the future of churches. But I would like to make 12 observations.” I think what followed were 12 very reasonable and cogent observations about things we will all have to deal with now and in the future. The number 12 is also very biblical.
So here are Martha’s 12 observations:
1. We are experiencing the demise of the pre-pandemic model of church. Church, as we knew it before the pandemic, will not come back.
According to Martha, we are not in a temporary transitional period where the church will bounce back to the “good old days.” Even without the pandemic, long-run demographic and social trends were seriously eroding the traditional model of church. The pandemic sped up the process and added some complications.
Martha said national data show that the typical church has recovered roughly 50% of its pre-pandemic Sunday attendance. She asked the audience of Unity ministers if this number and trend applied to them? The overwhelming majority of hands in the room went up and affirmed this observation.
Unity of Roanoke Valley is doing better than 50% and seems to be doing better than many other Unity congregations.
2. In this new environment, successful and growing churches will evolve and become much more than just Sunday meeting places. They evaluate their effectiveness beyond just the Sunday service(s).
3. The “vision” for the future will become increasingly clear. In the gospel after the resurrection, Jesus asked Peter several times if Peter loved him? Peter kept responding that he did love the Master. Jesus responded, “if you love me, then feed my sheep.“ He did not respond, “if you love me, then count my sheep.”
The point is that successful churches in the future will be those that can positively transform lives, which means so much more than just the number of people attending the Sunday service. Martha also pointed out that Jesus went out to meet with people and did not expect people would come to him. The successful church of the future can’t just expect people to come to it. Martha added that it must go out into the world where people are in this modern era. This newer paradigm redefines what churches are and how they will function.
4. At many churches, Sunday attendance will normalize at a lower number than before the pandemic. But this does not mean that a thriving church will serve fewer people now than before the pandemic. Martha noted that successful churches will serve people online and where they work, live, and play. This reminded me of the old saying, “if Mohammed doesn’t come to the mountain, then the mountain should go to Mohammed.”
5. Hybrid church will simply become church! What churches do online will become just as important as what they do in their buildings! Services and classes will increasingly become both in-person and online experiences. Those ineffective churches in this hybrid world will probably go the way of the dodo.
6. The in-person part of church will have to become much more personal! Martha, in effect, spoke about the importance of spirit circles and other smaller groups where people “know your name” (as they said in the old TV show Cheers). Martha made a critical point here. Everybody doesn’t need to know everybody else’s name. But everybody must have a sense of belonging and personal connection in this “beloved community.“
7. Information will have to move online, and “transformation experiences” will have to become more personal. If these two qualities are lacking, a church might not make it in the future.
8. “Location-independent“ church members will become more important. In our case, more of our members might not live in the Roanoke Valley. Or they may have lived here once, but now they have moved away.
9. Pastors will experience a diminished sense of authority in these newer models of a successful church. “Healthy ministers” will experience this shift as a good friend and a sign of real progress.
10. A ministerial “brain drain” will become serious. Martha believes that a growing number of people will feel burnt out and rapidly leave the ministry. When I heard Martha make this point, I reflected on my seminary class. Yes, a good number of people in my Unity Institute and Seminary class are no longer in the ministry.
11. There will be an exit of “uninvested investors.” By this, Martha meant that donors gave substantial amounts to churches in the past even though they were not active in the church. Martha believes that if these donors are not actively engaged in a church, they will be much less likely to continue giving.
12. In terms of churches and the environment impacting churches, things will become even more unpredictable in the future. As Martha put it, “Expect the unexpected!”
I would be very interested in your reactions and reflections on Martha’s 12 points. This is a vital discussion that we all should have. You can email me at RBelous5@gmail.com or text me at 571-215-9481. Also, I would love to sit down and discuss the above.
I believe our actions now will go a long way in determining the future health of churches. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions – combined with prayer and meditation – can make the difference. While church as we knew it might not come back exactly the way it was before the pandemic, I believe that the best could be yet to come in terms of spirituality.
We are co-creators with Spirit and have “the Christ within, the hope of glory.”