Our church is going through a very difficult transition period.
Actually, it’s gone through many in the past decade, but this one seems to be the hardest. And while, in the long run, it might be for the best, right now it is not good. Very not good.
I share this in hopes of connecting with others and hopefully sparking some conversation.
So here’s some details.
We’re a small church. The highest I’ve seen our membership in the past 10 years was about 200. On average there’s been less than 100 of us. The lowest we’ve been is 15. It might have been lower than that for actual membership, but one Sunday – several in fact – there were 15 people in the seats. That included my wife and (at the time) 6 children.
At the time we joined the church, my wife and I were the youngest adults in attendance. And we were in our mid-30s. There was probably a 20-year gap to the next oldest. For a long time, our church was primarily ‘gray’. The “older folks” greatly outnumbered the “younger folks”. And except for my own, we had no kids.
Fast forward 10 years. Now there are many younger folks, and lots of kids. But the ‘gray’ crowd, is leaving. In droves. Some are telling us why, most just stop coming, stop talking to us, and just break all connection with us.
And while that in itself is not fatal to our membership numbers, since we are gaining younger folks and our numbers are about the same, it has been devastating to our finances. Truth is, younger families with kids just don’t give as much as older, retired folks.
Now that’s the facts. Sorry if that sounds cold and ‘numbery’ and all the other things we’re not really supposed to worry about when ‘doing’ church, but I had to lay it out there just for the background.
When you look away from the numbers, to the love and support and the spiritual grown of the church, we are thriving. We have a great preacher on staff, a great secretary that supports the whole set up, and a really great leadership team that is full of great people with varied skills.
But then we hit a wall. And we’re stalled.
We had a flood of fantastic ideas, we formed teams to run things, and then just…. flat. People got busy, meetings were canceled, others just gave up, and the teams sputtered and then died.
So we’re here, facing a huge shift in our demographic age wise – but also diversity. Now diversity is good. One of our principles as a church is to be a mosaic, a whole made up of very different parts. In that we are succeeding, but I think the change has been too much for some of the ‘old school’ folks and for whatever reason – agism, racism, old-way-ism – they felt it was time to move on.
So what does a church do in this situation? The word panic comes to mind, but that’s not what we need to do. We could do the ol’ “step out in faith” giving sermon, but that’s not something we do.
Here’s my personal opinion:
I know that’s kind of a dirty word in church – “modernize”, because tradition is important. And it is, it really is. But there’s traditon and then there’s “they way we’ve always done it”. Nothing kills anything faster than “this is how it’s supposed to be because we always do it this way”.
There’s a story I’ve heard several times.
A church did communion every week. Many churches do it, but this particular church had a very particular way that they did it. With great ceremony the elements were brought in, th trays carefully stacked with decorative cloths draped over them. After the elements were passed, the cloths were then ceremoniously draped back over and the trays quickly returned to the kitchen.
One day someone asked “why?” Why so quickly brought to and from the kitchen and why the cloths? What was the Biblical reason? No one knew, but everyone knew that it ‘had to be that way’. Finally someone took the time to find out. Only one person knew. Betty, a 98 year old founding member. Expecting great wisdom, everyone gathered around to hear. “The cloths and the shuffling back and forth from the kitchen”, Betty said, “is to keep the flies off the elements. If we don’t keep the trays in the fridge, and if we don’t keep them covered when they’re not in the fridge, the flies get on them.” Flies? The church didn’t have an insect problem. But then they realized. 50 years before, the church didn’t have air conditioning or heating. It didn’t even have electricity originally. The doors and windows were kept wide open during the warm months of the year, so there were always flies. But as the church modernized, the flies were kept out.
Yet the old ways remained, even when no one could remember why they were doing it.
Author Neale Donald Walsch put it this way:
“Honor the tradition, but expand the understanding. That’s what religions must do right now if they hope to be helpful to humans in the years ahead.”
If you don’t understand why things are the way they are, then we need to figure it out. If we can’t figure it out, then ditch it. But more than that, the tradition is not as important as the understanding. The root, the reason, God, the Bible, the people – if that is not ‘it’ then your church doesn’t have ‘it’.
But what does that look like in practice? What are the practicalities of it? What does a church need to actually DO to catch up?
There are some realities that can’t be avoided. Not the least of which is money. Churches need money to function. There are expenses. Bills that need to be paid. Paychecks for staff. That reality can’t be avoided. Churches also need buildings, be it their own or a rented space or whatever. That too can’t be avoided.
But then what?
All the rest is negotiable. All of it. Every bit of it. (Ok, so a church also needs the Bible, but I figured that was assumed, and discussions on the interpretation thereof and all that are for another blog post.)
Modernize. It’s not a bad word. You don’t have to compromise belief to do it.
You want to reach ‘millennials’ or anyone else, you reach them where they live instead of expecting them to come to you. And they live in the new millennium. Our fast-paced, social-media connected, world is what it is now. That’s where people live. And that is where your church needs to live.
I’ve ranted enough now. What I really need is discussion. What are your thoughts?