“How do we get more young people like you into our church?”
This was a question my young colleagues and I received with frequency. As three twenty-somethings working at a Mainline Protestant campus ministry in Madison, WI—where it seems like young people are either evangelical or non-religious—we garnered intrigue and attention from the local churches. They looked at us with hopefulness, as if we might represent a miraculous reversal in the trend of young adults moving away from Christian faith.
This trend is faced by many Mainline Protestant churches across the country. Many were already starting to intuit the decline in their churches, but the 2015 study by the Pew Research Center put solid numbers to a shifting religious landscape. The numbers do not bode well for Christians, broadly speaking. The percentage of Americans who identify as Christian dropped almost 8% between 2007 and 2014, with Mainline Protestants in the steepest decline. Meanwhile, 22.8% of Americans now identify as non-affiliated, and amongst millennials, it’s upwards of 35%. With each passing year, it appears the country is becoming less religious.
This is a concern with which the Christian church is grappling. A great number of people in the Mainline Protestant traditions are becoming painfully aware that the traditional model of church is no longer reaching young people. They are seeing their teens leaving church to participate in high school activities and then never coming back after college.
Many churches are asking the kinds of questions they asked me: how do we get young people to our church? Yet folks like John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, say that bringing in new and young people won’t happen simply by changing the music during worship or trying to have a hip youth group. Instead, the church has to reimagine what it means to be church in a way that truly meets the spiritual needs and interests of the upcoming generations.
This series of articles has been about farm and dinner churches, what they are like, and why this form of ministry is showing up today. Yet in this time of religious change, it is a pertinent question to ask what these food-based ministries mean for the church and its future. How are they related to the uncomfortable changes the church is experiencing today?
A number of pastors that I interviewed identified the shifting religious climate as one impetus to start a farm or dinner church. Some pastors noted that their church was born from the ashes of another church closure. Other pastors shared an intentional desire to reach out to the people that the traditional church had left out—LGBTQ individuals, young adults, and people who are questioning their faith. All the pastors expressed some of their own dissatisfaction with the traditional church—it is too doctrinal, too bureaucratic, or too committed to doing things the familiar way.
Declining church membership and an increasing population of religious skeptics are not the sole reasons for the emergence of food-based ministries, nor do the former inherently lead to the latter. Nevertheless, it seems the changing religious landscape has opened a space for generative creativity, and the pastors of farm and dinner churches are amongst many that are eager to fill that space with new modes of doing ministry. All types of ministers are experimenting with the definition of “church.” In the pool of inventive outcomes you find pastors that are gathering congregants together over a round of beers at “Bar Church” and pastors who’ve adopted the Western frontier style in the intriguing “Cowboy Church.”
Ultimately, of the farm and dinner churches that I visited, the pastors are not asking, “How do we get young people in our church?” Instead, they are asking different questions: How can we best be disciples of Jesus’ ministry of justice and radical welcome? How can we help make Christ’s presence come alive for people in a new way? Their answer is to go back to the Last Supper and to the agape feasts of the early church to encounter the spiritual nourishment that can be found in a meal shared in common. They are finding that people are coming, hungry not only for food, but for a spiritual environment where they feel seen and welcomed.
Farm and dinner churches are not necessarily the solution to a church in crisis. They are one of many spirit-filled and effective embodiments of Christian faith. That said, farm and dinner churches offer a powerful form of Christian ministry that the larger church should take seriously. These food-based churches are committed to Jesus’ ministry and to justice in our world. Because of their emphasis on food, they are able address important social and environmental issues like food insecurity and hunger, economic inequality, and climate change. Their public witness, as well as their welcoming environment for spiritual growth, make farm and dinner church a revitalizing expression of Christian faith.
The emergence of farm and dinner churches represents a hopeful view into the future of the Christian Church. These ministries display the kind of imaginative capacity that I believe is needed to keep the Christian Church alive into the future. Farm and dinner churches are showing us that even when “church” looks different in form and style, Jesus is continuing to touch people and transform hearts. Jesus’ ministry is still inspiring people into a discipleship of loving God and loving neighbor by inviting them to his table and to the church’s table. As long as that table remains open, people will keep coming to hear and to share the good news.
“God is still speaking,” is the slogan of the United Church of Christ. The people of farm and dinner churches take this mantra seriously. They are listening for God’s word and responding with hope to truly live out God’s call for us. The church may change over time, but God will always be speaking in new ways, breathing life into the world and offering a faith of communion and connection for the people. As the people of the church, we must always remain with open ears and open hearts for the surprising things God has yet to tell us.