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The Question I Should Have Been Asking All Along

The challenges that pastors of legacy churches in older, changing communities continue to increase. And as Carey Nieuwhof shared in recent post, crisis is both a revealer and an accelerator. Carey writes...

The crisis of the last few years has done two things for every church and business. It’s revealed what’s working and what isn’t. And it’s sped up the consequences of both.

While a few churches have seen rapid growth during the crisis, most churches are still hovering between 30-70% of their 2019 attendance.

A survey of over 15,000 churches conducted just before COVID hit shows that between 2000 and 2020, median church service attendance dropped from 137 people to 65.

The updated graph will probably show an even more precipitous decline.

So what’s the insight?

Because crisis both reveals and accelerates, perhaps you’re seeing today what your church would have looked like in 2030. The longer your church has been fully open for in-person services, the more true that is.

As sobering as that might be, perhaps it’s a gift.

If the old approach hasn’t been working for 20 years, the accelerated decline can be a gift to help you see that a new approach is needed.

If the old approach never led to renewal, trying harder won’t bring about different results no matter how hard you try.

And if the old model of church wasn’t working before, it’s probably not going to work again, no matter how sincere you are, how loudly you shout it, or how desperate you feel.1

When I speak of pastors in older, legacy churches in changing communities I have first-hand knowledge. Our church turned one-hundred years old last May and our community that bumps up to the southwestern corner of Jacksonville, Florida is changing at a rate hard to comprehend. In just a short number of years our area has moved from being a destination for families to buy homes, imbed themselves, and remain for decades to being a "drive-by" community from the fast-growing Jacksonville to the former swamp and forest-filled areas in the central and southern part of our county where new subdivisions have been and continue to be planted. New highways and thoroughfares are being built in these areas and the old-timers who may think nothing is going to change are in for a rude awakening. 

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Years ago I shared with our church's deacons and leadership about how missional mapping reveals the great difficulty of actually getting to our church's property from many parts of our county. Barriers that keep people from moving from location A to location B include gated communities, divided highways, waterways, bridges, railroad tracks, and more. As an example, for me to drive from my home to my office at the church, I must cross a divided highway, go by a gated community (I don't live in one,) cross a waterway over a bridge, and cross a railroad track. Thus the "Field of Dreams" philosophy that states "If we build it, they will come" that developed through the church growth era is defunct, if it ever was truly valid.

It's Not Just Small Churches Needing Revitalization

Church networks, mission agencies, and denominations have been and are working to develop strategies to help the thousands of churches across our nation that are on life support. In many cases, the targeted churches are in communities that have had dramatic demographic shifts and yet the church seems to be living in a time warp where upon entry one feels as if they've stepped back a few decades. 

Some have found their membership aging and numbers dwindling to just a a dozen or so. In these cases, one does not need a degree on anthropology or even an advanced math degree to determine that unless something changes, the church will soon no longer exist.

Many in these smaller churches do not realize change must take place until it is too late.

Sadly, many in historically larger, legacy churches in our communities have the very same blind spots. They just have more financial resources so they often do not recognize their very real needs until decades after they should. And as stated before, the crisis of the pandemic has thrust us all about ten years into the future as it relates to church attendance. So, some are now thankfully noticing such needs that would otherwise be ignored for years.

But What To Do?

In our most recent deacons meeting the men asked some very sincere and needed questions regarding the many changes that have recently happened in our church. These changes have included the retirement of two full-time pastors, the retirement of an administrative assistant, the shift from full-time to part-time for some employees (by their request) and the very real issues of deferred maintenance to our buildings that are now having to be addressed.

Concerns abound that we are doing less ministry than in the past, but after discussing this honestly with our deacons and staff, it is not so much that ministry is not happening. It is more that we have been forced to take the steps we should have years prior to eliminate the mindset that the "professional Christians" (e.g. paid pastors and staff) do the ministry and the church members receive the ministry. While there is certainly ministry actions and services offered to church members, we all know that one of the roles and callings of pastors and ministers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Thus, we have been recently blessed with a shift from obvious consumer-Christianity to biblically-based gospel service.

I will say that it is a very difficult shift for those who have spent decades in a church model that seemingly fuels consumer-based thoughts and functions to one that is biblical. I understand this and actually feel this tension.

In our discussion and in many one-on-one talks I have had with church members, I hear recommendations from those seeking to serve the Lord through our church. As ideas are shared I hear the desperation in the voices. Examples of what could be done (or should be done) clearly are based on what has been experienced in decades past, or in other churches. I have heard well-meaning saints express that we should implement a bus ministry (but we don't have a bus,) restart our children's sports leagues, sing more hymns in worship, sing more praise choruses, increase our choir numbers, get rid of the choir, turn up the lights, turn down the lights, have a big youth event weekly, do more trips, restart mid-week meals, do Bible studies in homes, offer better and more classes for Sunday morning, have the preacher (me) do more topic-based sermons, have the preacher (still me) do more verse-by-verse sermons, go back to what we did years ago (in various ministry age-groups,) and more.

The good news is that all these brothers and sisters care deeply about our church.

The challenging reality is that just about every recommendation comes from a rear-view mirror. That makes sense because we know what we know, not what we don't know. What we know is what we have experienced. We often think about how church was when we loved it most, met our spouse, had our baby dedicated, developed deep friendships, experienced revival, etc. and long for that again.

The Question That Hit Me Like a Brick

Back to that deacons' meeting. We talked. I wrote on a white board. I listened. I offered opinions. Then one of our men asked a question. It was a question I did not expect, but should have. It was the question that caused me to stop and to be honest, led to a bit of a conundrum in my mind. 

You see, I believe that planting new churches is needed in our nation and throughout the world. I serve with our mission board as a cohort leader for new church planters. I serve in our local network to connect church planters with legacy church pastors. I offer expertise (what little I have) to church planters looking for resources, insight, demographic studies, and next steps for the churches God is leading them to begin.

But this question...well, it shook me.

This brother asked "If our church did not exist but you were a church planter looking to plant a church at this location, what would you do and what would you not do?"

Uh...

This is the question that must be answered.

While the legacy of one-hundred years of service in our community is good and vital, in order to continue serving the Lord faithfully and impacting our community...our dramatically changing community...I must ask this question regularly.

It has been said often and must be repeated, the unchanging message of the gospel is never up for debate. The doctrines of the faith are cemented and secure. Who we are as God's church is founded upon him. Yet, to live missionally in any community means that contextualization must continually occur. Otherwise, we will wake up one day to the reality that we have systems in place and structures developed as a church that are perfectly designed to reach a people who no longer exist.

What would I do if I were planting a church here today? 

It seems we have been thrust into this due to the global crisis and this "time machine" has led us now to what otherwise would not have been recognized by many of our church members until years from now. But it is now and God has sovereignly allowed us to remain as his light in this darkness. To be salt and light in this community remains founded on the very same Word, but the way we share that with the world may be changing. It obviously has. 

I am thankful that things are not as dire as they could be, or are for many. But, I know that to ignore the realities of now by simply going backward is not the answer.

We cannot put new wine in old wineskins, though many try. 

I will wrestle with this question as will many others in our church. Perhaps by reading this, other churches and leaders will as well. In the midst of very challenging post-pandemic (or current pandemic) days, may we not cease to live as missionaries and ambassadors to a world not seeking God, not desiring God, but needing him. 

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1Carey Nieuwhof. “5 Faulty Assumptions about the Future Church.” CareyNieuwhof.com, 21 Jan. 2022, careynieuwhof.com

 
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