Churches like mine will not last into the next generation.
At least not looking the way we look today.
There’s a cultural and financial storm underway. Unless we anticipate, acknowledge and respond well to it, churches like mine will be about as rare as printed newspapers, land-line phones and brick-and-mortar bookstores.
So, what do I mean by “churches like mine”? First, here’s what I don’t mean.
Megachurches will be OK. For the most part. They have a big enough giving base to weather the storms.
House churches will be fine as well. They have no overhead to worry about. And they’re doing church and relationships in a way that is increasingly more attractive to the coming generation.
Rural churches will probably be OK, too. Most new trends tend not to hit small towns as deeply as big cities. Plus, small-town churches are more adept at struggling and surviving through hard times.
But churches like mine – the small to mid-size denominational church with a mortgage and a pastoral salary in a large metropolitan area – will start disappearing at a frightening pace in the next couple of decades.
Sorry to be the bearer of ill tidings. But the only alternative to facing the truth is to deny the truth – and suffer the consequences because of our denial.
This article was originally posted on October 8, 2014. It wasn’t one of the most-read posts of the year, but I think it’s worth a second (or first) look as one of the overlooked #BestOf2014.
Why Is My Church Endangered?
Fifteen years ago, my church was less healthy than it is today. It had half the attendance it has today. But we could afford to pay our mortgage, two full-time salaries, and the upkeep on the building, while giving a good percentage to missions and funding all the ministries the church needed.
Today we have double the attendance, more volunteerism and a healthier mission and ministry. But we’re having to do more with less every year.
There are several reasons. Many of which no one has really figured out yet. But, for today I’ll outline three changes we need to acknowledge:
1. People’s financial realities have changed
We’ve gone from one person’s salary paying the family’s bills in my parents’ era, to both spouses needing to work in my era. And now we’re heading into an era in which at least one, sometimes both of the adults in the household (if there are two adults in the household), will need more than one source of income each. This reality is already hitting highly populated areas like mine.
2. What people are willing to give to has changed
I dealt with this reality in a previous post entitled, The Growing Disconnect Between Spiritual Hunger and Church Attendance, so for now I’ll just say this. People no longer want to give their increasingly-hard-earned money to pay for our salaries or church mortgages. But they will give to causes they care about.
3. How people relate to God and the church has changed
They used to trust God and us until given a reason not to. Now they don’t trust God or us until we prove that we’re worthy of it.
What Won’t Save Our Churches
Church Growth – Not every church is destined to become big – not even in large population centers. Because not everyone wants to attend a large church. The answer for my healthy Small Church is not to become a big church. It’s to become a healthier and smarter Small Church. As I wrote a while ago, Big Cities Need Great Small Churches, Too.
Teaching on Tithing – People don’t tithe like they used to. Some of it is lack of teaching. But much of it, as we saw in point #2 above, is because we’re not showing people that the church is a cause worth giving to. We can teach them to tithe until we’re hoarse, but they won’t do it if we’re not showing them good stewardship of what they’re giving. They may be more right on this than we are. Poor tithing by church congregations may be a lesser sin than poor stewardship by church leaders.
Being Relevant – There are more “cool” churches now than there ever have been. And I’m OK with that. There’s nothing righteous about being dowdy, slow and out-of-touch. But “cool” is overrated. We don’t need churches to be more relevant. We need them to be more real, more contextual and – dare I say it – more counter-cultural.
None of the above tactics are bad. But relying on them will not bring the long-term results we really need.
What Might Save Our Churches
Pay the Mortgage! – Churches with debt will not last. The sad demise of The Crystal Cathedral is only the most obvious recent case of that. Extravagant buildings and programs must give way to practical methods under strong, budgetary stewardship.
Proactive Change – Churches that wait too long to react, will die. Churches that thoughtfully and prayerfully anticipate, adapt and lead a changing culture will be healthier and more valuable to people and to the kingdom of God than ever.
Bivocational Pastoring – The Apostle Paul was bivocational. Most pastors in history and throughout the world today are bivocational. But they’re still looked at as not-quite-pastors to a lot of us. That has to change. Fewer churches will be able to afford the luxury of the full-time pastor. For more about this, check out Hugh Halter’s book, BiVo.
Partnering with Other Churches – The go-it-alone church won’t make it any more. No, this is not about denominations. Many churches within denominations are still going it alone, while many nondenominational churches have healthy, robust partnerships with like-minded churches. Check out Hope Church in San Diego and the book, Churches Partnering Together, by Chris Bruno & Matt Dirks for a couple ideas on how to do this better.
Don’t Panic, But Start Acting – Now
It’s not all bad news. So if your church looks like mine, or if you’re reading this and you actually attend my church, don’t panic.
First, whether-or-not our churches survive in their current form or a new one, the church will always thrive.
Second, churches that see the writing on the wall and make the necessary adaptations, including those listed above, will not just survive, but thrive. No, they won’t look the same in twenty years. But the way we look today isn’t how we looked twenty years ago, either. It’s not a matter of whether-or-not we change. It’s a matter of how we change and who’s in charge of the change.
Third, the coming trends may actually force the church back towards a more sustainable, possibly even more biblical model. One where there’s less dependence on buildings, structures and professional clergy – and more dependence on genuine community, discipleship and direct reliance on God.
(For the best information on these trends that I know of, plus some real-life hopeful answers, check out The Great Evangelical Recession, by John S. Dickerson.)
So what do you think? What does your church need to do to survive and thrive?
We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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