Non-Profits as Faith Communities?

We need a new church.

The majority of Millenials are not going to church, even those who grew up in a church. Seminary enrollment is down, which means that young adults are largely not considering careers serving the Church. That doesn’t mean that this generation doesn’t have faith, or don’t want to live out their faith in concrete actions or be part of a movement. It just means that congregations are not the way most Millenials are choosing to do these things. The “How We Gather” study by two students at Harvard Divinity detailed some “replacement” organizations that Millenials are using to meet some of the needs filled by church, such as spiritual transformation or a supportive community. Yet I wonder about inter-generational relationships and commitment to a higher power and sacred text beyond ourselves. Or a sense of discovery of what the Holy Spirit is doing, revealed by how the Spirit has worked in the past (by reading scripture). I wonder about theology: faith seeking understanding. How are these needs being addressed by the “replacements”? The people who are truly atheists and agnostics are one matter, but I wonder about those who have a spirituality based on Christianity, yet are repelled by churches as they are. Might there be another way for them to form spiritual community, do theology and make a difference in the world, than through congregations?

Also, and very importantly, since mainline Protestant denominations have been mostly white and middle class, how would we make sure that is not the outcome?

How could association with faith-based non-profits provide some of the benefits of congregations, without the turn-offs? Non-profits don’t have this baggage that some churches do: bureaucracy and nostalgic traditions that slow the pace of action, ties to social policies that are behind the times (LGBTQ…), or pressure to fit a mold by presenting only your “Sunday best”.

A faith-based non-profit can foster so much, perhaps previously claimed by congregations:

  • Belonging, supporting a common cause
  • Education and mutual sharing of expertise, applying theology to complicated public conversations
  • Public voice of faith
  • Established group to mobilize when urgent response is needed
  • Inter-generational relationships
  • Caring community one can lean on in crisis?

Imagine pursuing a double bottom line for non-profits, the double goal of creating belonging and spiritual community for donors/volunteers as well as valuable services for the non-profit’s target audience. For many non-profits, this is a burden no one has the capacity to take on, but if people of faith saw it as a new way to create faith communities, while supporting the non-profit’s mission, could not everyone benefit? Still, the great need would be for commitment, and regular involvement of supporters. And for that it has to be perceived to be worth the effort, meaningful for volunteers and making a positive impact in the world. With a spiritual hunger and need for community that, for some, will not be met by congregations because of past negative experiences, a non-profit could become a new way of being “church” for a new generation.

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