Face Time Redefined: Figuring out Faith and the Flexible Congregation

Very recently I was introduced to a church-word I had never heard before. The new word, now part of my professional lexicon, is "Creasters." Like a celebrity mash-up, it is a morphing of two words: "Christmas," and "Easter."

This word refers to people who attend church on those two annual high holy days, but otherwise stay away. The word may be new, but the concept is not. The previous phrase of choice was "C-&-E Christians." Creasters (unlike their C-&-E predecessors) are young adults, primarily Gen Xers and younger. So, why is it that people are staying away from institutionalized religion except for twice annually? And, is there anything the traditional Church can do to entice them to return?

Numerous reasons are projected why Creasters have migrated away from organized religious communities. Some suggest they buy into the contemporary catchphrase of a society that often diminishes the role of faith but does not desire to completely shut the door on the possibility of The Divine: "spiritual but not religious." Others contend they have simply inherited from their parents and grandparents a societal phenomenon that occurred during the 1960s, which was the death of institutional loyalty (whether those institutions are political, commercial, educational, or religious/denominational). Still others proffer that The Church has distanced itself from increasing numbers of people by appearing to be inconsistent in its commitments (i.e., by preaching the doctrine of Grace but practicing exclusivity and judgmentalism toward the LGBTQ community or by preaching a commitment to the 1st chapter of Genesis while denying the reality of global climate change).

While not denying the possible validity of any of those suggestions, it is still important to note that they are all negatively implied. What if at least part of the motivation behind the minimal involvement of Creasters in church is not quite so reactionary in nature? What if, instead, it is as much practical as it philosophical? Put another way, what if churches are so married to the ways things have always been done that they lack the flexibility to open doors of ministry to people who are products of a not-so-ancient or rigid world?

In the church I serve (Marble Collegiate Church, the oldest Protestant church in America), we are finding that maintaining our strength requires doing traditional things in new ways. A primary example of that has to do with Virtual Ministry. Every Sunday morning our worship service is now live-streamed globally. Whereas attendance in-house remains strong, our online congregation always outnumbers those who sit in the pews. On any given Sunday we will have hundreds of people seated in our sanctuary, the vast majority of whom are from New York City (with lesser numbers coming from Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, and even Pennsylvania. This also includes tourists from seven or eight additional states and perhaps four to five countries). However, we now know that on any given Sunday we have hundreds more worshiping with us online from an average of forty-four states and twenty-seven countries. Additionally, we offer one specific online worship/study opportunity every week that attracts numerous others. We have used social media, Twitter and Facebook to build connection for our virtual community. Churches that ignore live streaming and other social media outlets ignore the significant population of people who find information and connection therein and, thus, who probably seek for Faith through those media sources. Many churches are likewise discovering that Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. is no longer considered "holy ground" by younger generations. The contemporary workforce is compelled to be on the job at that hour to a far greater degree than were their predecessors. Weeknight, midday, and late Sunday worship schedules, therefore, for vast numbers are more accommodating than Sunday mornings alone.

Additionally, virtually all church research firms concur that a younger generation of faith-seekers also desires churches that connect theological proclamation with practical application. They desire communities of faith that provide opportunities for them to practice their faith in the world, to put to use in some transformative fashion doctrinal beliefs which are taught or preached in church. Therefore, churches that do not provide mission, justice, and service opportunities are considered inauthentic and unappealing. The simple fact that Creasters still show up on Christmas and Easter indicates that they possess a stored memory and honor for influential persons of faith who went before, and a desire to rediscover a sense of mystery without which life tends to be predictable and pedestrian.

So, the challenge confronting traditional bricks-and-mortar churches is how to remain attractive to those who come on "high holy days" during all those other days which seem not quite so high or holy. Simply by attending two Sundays per year, Creasters reveal that they have not written off institutional Christianity. Rather, they want the ongoing expression of Christian faith to be as consistently engaging as are the stories of the Birth and Resurrection of Jesus. They want church to be more substance than show. They want it to be pertinent. And, they want churches to be sufficiently flexible to give them the opportunity still to participate in an ancient tradition while operating by the clock and calendar of a contemporary world. Congregations that figure out how to carry the ageless faith along these new highways will find significant numbers of Creasters marching with them on a far more regular basis than merely twice a year.

The author is Senior Minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. The church is the oldest Protestant organization in North America in continuous service and has a global following online - with worshipers in 47 countries connecting through its live-streamed services.

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