"Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?" Carole King asked musically.
Well, researchers at the Barna Group have the answer: More and more Americans are doing so. And Jeff Brumley of the Baptist News Global operation looks at whether people staying put is a good thing or a bad thing for congregations.
First let me say that Jeff is a longtime friend and a veteran religion reporter. Still, what we have here is what GetReligion folks call a "Got news?" story. It's a trend in a religious publication that is certainly worthy of coverage by folks in mainstream newsrooms.
Pulling from the Barna survey, Brumley says most people nowadays -- 59 percent -- are certain or fairly sure they’ll never move again.
Normally, that would be good news for churches, which thrive on stable communities. But not necessarily this time, Brumley says, quoting Baptist minister Kevin Collison:
"The church has to realize we are now in competition with other community forces," he said. "CrossFit may be their community, more maybe the microbrewery is their community."
Ditto for coffee shops and farmers’ markets, Collison added. In other words, people staying put may present as many challenges for congregations as it does opportunities, he said.
The Baptist Global News story quotes a good variety of sources. Besides Pastor Collison, there's David Hull of the Center for Healthy Churches and Roxanne Stone of Barna. (However, Stone is only quoted via the organization's website.)
Hull spells out another ramification of people's reluctance to move -- a reluctance of clergy to change venues:
Increasingly, churches are hearing back from potential candidates unwilling to relocate for an open pulpit or other position, Hull said.
"This is why we are seeing more and more churches calling staff members from within their congregations," he said.
The article is briskly written and to the point, but it could have used a few things. I'm a little surprised it omitted another finding in the survey: that 45 percent of Americans live in suburbs, more than in the city or country, including GenXers. Barna also found that 58 percent of all suburbanites are evangelical or "practicing Christian." You'd think that would give churches an advantage.
However, among Millennials, or those born between 1984 through 2002, 14 percent say they expect to move in less than a year, versus only 6 percent of all Americans. "Education, work opportunities and attractive lifestyles in cities like Washington, DC, and New York have long drawn younger generations away from rural communities and toward the glitz of the big city—and fewer and fewer young adults are returning once they leave," Barna says.
What to do about that? There's little on that it in the Baptist News article. The sources talk about the need for relationships and "community"; Collison says churches have an edge in that department over gyms and microbreweries. But no one in the story offers concrete ideas on how to form and maintain relationships within churches.
Do churches need more physical facilities, like coffee bars and bowling alleys? Maybe more programs, like concerts or family days? Perhaps more online accessibility, like Facebook pages and cloud-based worship services? Or more spirituality-building exercises, like retreats and devotions?
Churches have tried all those, and it hasn't stopped the overall slide in attendance.
A survey like Barna's may not be the instrument for such suggestions, although the group offers things like cultural studies and consultant services. This is where reporting comes in handy. Brumley could have broadened his feedback section beyond the one pastor, to those at thriving churches. What are they doing right?
Such congregations could include Tim Keller's Redeemer Presbyterian Church, with three campuses in New York City. Or if Jeff wanted to stick with Baptist churches, he could mention NewSpring Church in Anderson, S.C., with 27,000 members.
None of the above should be taken to mean that I didn't like the story. It was a decent enterprising newsfeature. And it's entirely possible that Brumley had a tight deadline. But if there was time, it could be improved. You don’t always have to propose solutions; but if some churches are doing well, it means that solutions are, in fact, out there.
Reporters ought to dig into these facts and trends.