Take something barren and slowly tend it with the right amounts of water, sunlight, and nutrients. In time, green shoots emerge.
I have been looking for green shoots lately, what I call Greenhouses of Hope. I have been scanning the landscape of mainline congregations where youth and young adults want to be, where young people are heard to say, “If this is church, bring it on!” Despite somber news about the demise of denominations, I hear whispers of other realities. A Greenhouse of Hope is a Christian congregation freeing itself to experiment with both newly imagined and time-honored ways of following the path of Jesus. Its members respond to God’s love through practices that genuinely embrace the gifts of youth and young adults. Out of these greenhouses emerge young leaders who want to change the world.
As I set out to find churches across the country that are paying careful attention to new life emerging within their existing structures, I was struck by similarities between the lovingly restored greenhouses that make up Lynchburg Grows—a six-and-a-half-acre renovated community garden down the road from where I live—and thriving mainline churches. The nine greenhouses of Lynchburg Grows were, until recently, dilapidated and abandoned. When growing roses in the United States no longer was profitable, the owners simply walked away. Eight years later, a group of neighbors noticed potential in the abandoned greenhouses. They purchased the greenhouses and began removing years of accumulated debris. They wheelbarrowed out tainted soil and hauled in nutrient-rich compost. In what was once a wasteland, they began creating a multilayered oasis of hope. Among the nine stands one greenhouse that has not been renovated. In this greenhouse roses still grow. Given no fertilizer—only the water that seeps in the cracks and the sun that rises and sets each day—these roses nevertheless keep growing, bursting deep red right through the glass ceilings of the structures that would contain them. With only the most meager sustenance, they reach and bloom, but they do so in the midst of numerous obstacles.
I see in these roses an apt metaphor for God’s calling in the life of young people. God will call young lives, with or without the help of congregations. God will bring them bursting through glass ceilings as they grow toward who they are called to be. But how much better, and how much richer might the journey be if young people are not left to eke out their calling solo, but rather are given the best of their community’s resources of attention, love, and nourishment toward their vocational flourishing.
Mainline congregations that are thriving and surviving into the next generations with strong young leaders will be like renovated greenhouses in three particular ways: First, they will see an “architecture of possibility” within their infrastructure. Like renovated greenhouses, denominational churches have at their disposal centuries-old structures of grandeur and beauty. Because of the cost of maintaining old buildings, the word infrastructure usually has negative connotations in congregations. Plumbing, pipe organs, and stained glass windows need maintenance. That costs money, which drains the life out of aging congregations and away from missional opportunities that young people might heartily embrace.
Other more powerful, if less tangible, infrastructures are in place: denominations with a generation or more of global grassroots connections in places like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tasmania, and South Korea; thriving partnerships that dig wells and provide mosquito nets to fight malaria; church folk who can respond meaningfully with speed and flexibility to an earthquake in Haiti, because they have spent decades making real friends there. This kind of infrastructure can be of use to young people who want to change the world.
At the ground level, I see an architecture of possibility. Sometimes that refers to a spectacular piece of real estate located where young people are drawn to form community in collaboration with the economically vulnerable, such as Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia or Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, DC. Both of these were mainline churches on the brink of closing: now they are thriving centers for art, spirituality, worship, mission education, and outreach ministries that collaborate with neighborhood organizations. But often, the architecture of possibility is quiet. It can be a church where a generation of aging activists share their stories of the Montgomery bus boycott with a youth group made up of Goths, hip-hop artists, and slam poets. Deep infrastructure is a valuable inheritance already being put to good use by young people who want to make a difference in their world.
Second, thriving congregations will learn to look and listen closely to their context in order to ground themselves in what is organic and indigenous. Greenhouses of Hope are learning from the Emergent Church movement that if you want to start a new church, you go hang out at the local coffee shop to hear what people care about. You hang out in the bar around the corner and make connections with lonely people who are longing for a deeper sense of community. If you want to be an old church that has new life emerging within it, you will listen to your closest neighbors. Vibrant churches that are raising new young leaders from within listen and learn what ancient Christian practices are already close at hand, and then everywhere and always invite young people to climb into those practices with them.
Sometimes, abandoned greenhouses are filled with debris. I remember the closet in the educational wing of a local United Methodist Church where I organized the vacation Bible school one summer a few years ago. It was filled with filmstrip machines, egg cartons, and 1950s-era drawings of shepherds tending their flocks. This debris from a long-ago time needed to be removed to make way for the office of the church’s first paid youth minister. Removal of debris can be painstaking because of the human stories associated with it. Removal becomes easier once one recognizes that the debris may be antiquated and even harmful theology or rigid institutional structures that no longer serve human flourishing.
Third, thriving congregations will be attentive to how they provide just the right nutrients for the young lives in their care. An actual greenhouse is a seedbed. It provides the conditions for successful growth. In a greenhouse, young growth goes through a gradual process of hardening off. This is a time of slowly increasing exposure to harsh conditions outside the greenhouse, allowing the plant to become ever more able to sustain itself before it is transplanted to bring life to other places. If congregations grow their people to feed the world, then Greenhouses of Hope ask the question: How are we nurturing the young lives in our care so that they might go forth from us to change the world as agents of the transforming power of Jesus Christ? Hardening off takes many shapes and forms. It involves mission trips that expose young people to living conditions they never imagined, and then asks continually how this new knowing gets incorporated into their daily lives. Hardening off involves cultivating spiritual practices such as discernment, storytelling, contemplation, silence, Scripture study, conflict resolution, and community building that help young people embrace a distinctively Christian hope in the midst of suffering and despair.
Churches with deep roots and ancient ways are catching glimpses of the future reflected in the eyes of their young. Teens and twentysomethings are seeing visions. When adults who love them embrace this glimmer, when they nurture that young leader, churches engage in God’s good work of making green a desert place.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World edited by Dori Grinenko Baker, copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Greenhouses of Hope: Congregations Growing Young Leaders Who Will Change the World
Edited by Dori Grinenko Baker
The authors who collaborated on this book launched a quest for vibrant, life-giving, greening congregations and observed the diverse practices that grow there. They named these churches “Greenhouses of Hope.” A Greenhouse of Hope is a Christian congregation freeing itself to experiment with both newly imagined and time-honored ways of following the path of Jesus. Its members respond to God’s love through practices that genuinely embrace the gifts of youth and young adults. Out of these greenhouses emerge young leaders who want to change the world.
Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation
by Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt suggests a different way for churches to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth.
Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard
In Claiming the Beatitudes, Anne Sutherland Howard asks the questions, “What would the beatitudes look like today?” and “Is it possible to live a beatitudes life in today’s world?” Through nine remarkable stories of ordinary people, we are introduced to a world where the beatitudes are not an unreachable moral standard, but a simple set of guidelines by which we should live our lives.
Imagining Church: Seeing Hope in a World of Change
by Gary and Kim Shockley
Drawing on their more than thirty years of pastoral and church consulting experience, the Shockleys illustrate the power of imagination using personal stories born of their own quest to be faithful in ministry. They also show readers that imagining church is a shared experience among God’s people. When we imagine the church, we are co-creators with the Master Designer, Chief Architect, and Greatest Creator and can help others imagine church. They remind leaders, “If you can’t see it, neither will anyone else .”
It’s Not Too Late: A Field Guide to Hope
by Bob Sitze
A “field guide” is a small, pocketable book that accompanies you on an adventure or journey. It’s Not Too Late is a field guide to hope—sized so that you can carry it along with you on your daily journey of faith. The entries in this book will help you find hope, whether it’s right in front of you or it remains elusive despite your searchings .
STILL LOOKING FOR THE PERFECT GIFT FOR YOUR FAVORITE CLERGY PERSON OR EVEN FOR YOURSELF?
How to Balance Ministry and Life
February 1-3, 2011, Santa Barbara, CA
Facilitator: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant
How about a mid-winter break designed to bring balance into their life and ministry? Send them off for three days of renewal, relaxation, and rejuvenation at La Casa de Maria, near Santa Barbara, California. They will return with new insight, new skills, and a new outlook on their life, their congregation, and their ministry. Could be the perfect gift for your entire congregation!
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