“Hard America” is a phrase used by writer and columnist Michael Barone in his book Hard American, Soft America: Competition vs Coddling. He describes changes that have happened in our American society in recent decades. Almost all institutions have run into heavy competition that forced them to change how they operate if they want to survive into future decades.
Businesses have certainly a harder time as their competitors increase production and lower prices by adapting the newest technologies. The American auto industry competes against automakers in other countries who make cars many drivers regard as superior to American-made. When greater availability of clean natural gas made environmentally dirty coal uncompetitive, many miners became unemployed. And of course Amazon’s competition led many brick-and-mortar retail businesses to go out of business.
Schools face much more pressure than they did decades ago. Dissatisfaction with the poor performance of their graduates brought pressure to determine outcomes and then test to see how well these were accomplished. Teachers faced more stress. Teachers whose students didn’t learn much are being forced out of the profession.
Now let’s shift to churches. For centuries churches did their ministries in a soft environment. State churches had, with few exceptions, no competition at all. They were in villages, which tend to have a slower pace. State churches, like Anglican (Episcopalian), Lutheran, Presbyterian and Reformed, had no incentive to be attractive to churchgoers. Pastors could live a slow pace. They got into trouble only when conflict in the congregation got too visible or when they departed from the order of service dictated to them by the state-church rector.
Protestant pastors faced a harder environment in America when they needed to earn their salary from members, since in this country state subsidies no longer existed. Clearly the pastor’s ministries and focus became more “customer” oriented and they were under pressure to add new members. Yet for generations those church bodies in America coasted on the loyalties of families with a shared ethnic background.
In this third decade of the 21st century, old-line established congregations will have to compete in Hard America. The competition is no longer with other long-established church bodies. It is now with community churches that present themselves as non-denominational. Many are large and still growing. They are attractive especially to young people who have left behind their parents’ denominational loyalties. Face it. The Soft America of those loyalties isn’t coming back.
The Corona Virus pandemic forced a sorting out among congregations. When they could not meet physically, most tried to meet virtually. Large churches with staff and current technology were able to offer a well-produced experience. In some, attendance and offerings went up. Who would have guessed? Meanwhile, congregations with older members and little digital technology offered poor-quality virtual experiences. Most will probably not last very long. Some of their members found their way toward congregations offering better virtual experiences. Churches are now in an even harder America.
The pastor is the key to developing a congregational culture that will be more competitive in Hard America. Most mainline pastors grew up and functioned in Soft America. Most probably don’t have the heart to change their ways. Let’s hope most will make it to retirement before their church salary disappears.
Pastors who are able to compete in Hard America will have to look at their ministry as more than an occupation. In fact, many will need other employment to supplement what they get from their congregation. They will have to be passionate about their ministry, especially with the emphasis on attracting those who are no longer churched. If they are serving an existing congregation, they will have to be successful at fine-tuning that congregation’s culture.
In the future pastors will have to do their ministry focused on the Holy Spirit and dependent on the Spirit’s blessings. They will have to get good at “waiting on the Spirit.”
Doug Davis says
As a church planter, all I can add is a hearty AMEN!
David Luecke says
Yes, church planting is best done by larger churches that spin off new ones. Planting is a tough challenge.
michael hoopingarner says
Pastor Luecke, you bring up some very good points. I can share and relate a bit on the business side.
I am a second generation business owner and my son (31-years old) is the third generation owner. He has opened my thinking to changes for improving our 51-year old company.
I am confident that the Lord and Holy Spirit will provide and train next generation pastors and leaders to help navigate the church just has it has been happening with business.
What the lay people have to do (me!) is pray for them and their families, pay them, love them and offer support.
David Luecke says
Thanks, Mike. Christian churches in the future will look different from those in the past. We need to help support the new leaders that are emerging.
ROBERT DEMCHUK says
sophistication / worldly wisdom brings about a consumer mentality. Many are enamored with the “feeling” and not the substance. An old problem. Good observation
David Luecke says
Yes, churches now have to recognize that the people we want to reach out to have a consumer mentality. I think that was also true in the early church for the Gentile “God-fearers.” Basically, we need to practice what we preach. The behavior of believers is now much more important.
Elaine Schomaker says
Dave, You hit the nail on the head! You didn’t hold back any punches and was so concise in what is really happening in our church bodies today. Hallelujah for your continued emphasis on how important and, absolutely, necessary talking about and experiencing the Holy Spirit, is for churches to survive in the future.Your love and passion for the power of the Holy Spirit is inspirational and so life-giving. Thank you for having such a conviction to get the information, about the power of the Holy Spirit, to all who will listen and who can gain a new insight into what living with the Holy Spirit’s influence and presence, on a daily basis, is like.
David Luecke says
Thanks. I wish I knew where all this is going, but then that’s life under the guidance of the Spirit. I like the adventure.
Tom Sharpe says
Life has its pain associated with it that moves us in ways that bring about our growth. Someone once said “God loves us to much to leave us where we are. “ I am not sure about what is going to happen to the LCMS and American mainline churches in the future. Human have shown great capacity to adapt but some institutions have died and will continue to die. Yet, there are some issues of life that will not go away. Why are we here? Where do we find meaning? How do we live a good life? How do we fill our needs for relationships? How do we deal with dying? How do cope with loss? If the church can’t take leadership in the culture on the greatest issues of life some other organization or person will need to do it.
David Luecke says
Hi, Tom. The need remains great. In a Lenten devotion I read, the text was Jesus looking on the people and having compassion, for they were harassed and harried, like sheep without a shepherd. That is certainly true today. My observation is that so many families are looking for a source of authority for living their life. They readily accept the Bible as that source. Our challenge is to remove as many barriers as possible.
Bob Leech says
Open minds, now open Hearts!