Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

A Question of Survival

I recently had lunch with a good friend who, like myself, spent a large portion of his ministry career as a worship leader… and we have the battle scars to prove that we served churches who were in the midst of transitions in their worship style.

During the course of our lunch conversation, my friend asked a really fascinating question: “What do you think is going to happen to the thousands of traditional churches when our parent’s generation is gone?”

It’s an insightful question.  So much attention is given these days to new church plants, as it should be.  New churches reach people at an exponentially higher rate than existing churches.  But what about the tens of thousands of existing churches, and especially those who are “on the bubble” in terms of their viability in the years ahead?

Freemason Abbey, one of of my favorite restaurants in Norfolk, Virginia.  The building used to be the Second Presbyterian Church.

My initial response to his question was to state that sadly, many of them will die. I gave the example of a church in our area that once regularly had 500+ people in worship.  The deadly combination of a changing neighborhood and an unchanging church resulted in years of decline. Finally, in desperation, they approached a large church in the area and asked them to take over the church, because they could no longer afford to keep the lights on, much less pay a pastor or staff.

After I had a few days to mull my friend’s question over, my answer changed somewhat, though. My initial response was to predict a negative outcome, but the truth is that is not always the case. Make no mistake, in the years ahead many small churches will cease to exist. But the good news, I believe, is that many will not.

I think there are three basic scenarios that face smaller traditional churches over the next two decades:

Scenario #1 – A church, motivated by a deep love for their community and a heart to do whatever it takes to reach them, makes changes and adapts to fit the people they are trying to reach. As a result, new people – in many cases a new generation and/or a new demographic – become a part of the church. Their presence breathes new life and a new excitement into the church.  This is not simply a Utopian dream; stories of these “turn around churches” abound today!

Scenario #2 – The church makes superficial change or change for change’s sake in an attempt to fix the problem.  They do what they see growing churches do without understanding the why of the equation.  Those changes – the wrong things done for the wrong reason – cause friction in the church and don’t appeal to anyone outside of it. The church’s decline is accelerated by serious internal conflict.  They assume people will come if they make changes, and are surprised when they don’t.  They essentially put a fresh coat of paint on a barn that was about to fall down.

Scenario #3 – The church refuses to change or adapt, believing the focus of the church should be the care and comfort of those who are currently members of it.  At some point, the doors will close forever.  The “death” of the church may happen quickly, or it may experience a slow decline, depending on factors such as the financial viability of the church, the age of the current membership, the stability of the community around it, etc.

The single most important change a church can make is to change it’s focus from inward to outward.  Yet there are hundreds if not thousands of examples of churches making superficial changes in worship style, programs, or administration, none of which will make an significant difference in and of themselves.

The late Harry Piland was an evangelistic visionary who was years ahead of his time. Decades ago, he famously observed, “Your church exists for those who are not yet members of it.”  When a church truly embraces and embodies that idea, it can’t help but grow.

Conversely, when that philosophy is rejected, the dying process has already begun.

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