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Church revival will follow ‘killing church softly’

Christian formation specialists deliver straight talk during APCE workshop

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos

GALVESTON, Texas — The titles of two workshops held last week during the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators event — “Killing Church Softly” and “Reviving Church Loudly” — together served up a vision about what intergenerational worship and Christian education could look like in the coming years.

The Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos, the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s coordinator for Christian formation, and Brian Frick, an associate for Christian formation, described the current situation and then offered possible outcomes during a pair of Thursday workshops.

There was clearly pent-up demand for their description and prescription: several workshop attendees sat on the floor for 75-minute stretches to hear from both Santos and Frick.

During the morning workshop, Santos applied generational theory — the Silent Generation, Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and those who follow — to explain why, among other phenomena, ideas on church growth weren’t generally seen in the literature until the years following World War II.

But once they did appear, parents took the message to heart.

“Vacation Bible School became a means to get neighborhood kids into our program, teach them a great theme song and let them sing it on Sunday (during worship),” Santos said. “The parents sit there, look at their kid and think, ‘She’s so beautiful. We should go to this church.’”

One problem with emphasizing increased membership, he said, is that church growth “isn’t our job. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job. Our job is to be the church.”

Members of his own generation, Generation X, were also known as latchkey kids because for so many both parents worked outside the home.

“As a result, we have a more distant view of God,” he said.

The simple answer for helping children and young people feel more welcome and at-home in church is to include them in every facet possible.

“Kids should do eucharist from the day they can swallow bread,” he said. It makes no sense that children are included in sacraments including baptism and communion, “but the proclamation of the word is done just for adults.”

“The goal is not to learn the ins and outs of every Scripture passage,” he said. “How many sermons do you actually remember? The goal is not the assimilation of knowledge — it’s to be the body of Christ.”

Santos said he did youth ministry for two decades. One year, he taught an intergenerational Sunday school class for students ages 3-93.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “What does it look like to have an intergenerational worshiping community? It begins with getting generations in the same room to figure it out.”

Santos said those who see value in intergenerational worship and education are moving from a Platonic understanding –— if you know what is right, you’ll do what is right — to one that’s closer to Aristotle, who said that right thinking comes about by right practice.

He and Frick are developing a cohort of 14 churches in Presbytery of the Cascades to meet next month at the Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Corbett, Oregon.

Brian Frick

“We want to do experimental cohorts,” Frick said. After that, the two men will meet with participants via videoconference to talk about how their particular intergenerational approach is working.

Frick said their research shows five practices are common for communities who gather for meaningful worship. “When you do something together, it imprints on your brain,” he said, calling the experience “group collective memory.” The five practices that produce that kind of collective memory, he said, are storytelling, hospitality, service, prayer and retreat.

“These practices have a way of putting generations together,” he said.

One activity that involves almost all the practices is community gardening.

“It weaves a lot of practices around one activity,” he said. Besides, “kids love getting their hands dirty.”

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