Avoiding the Coming Tsunami of Church Closure


In 1964 Bob Dylan released his third studio album “The Times, They Are a-Changin’.” As was typical of the music from the 1960s, political and cultural statements and protests were the norm. The times were changing. Some for the better (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement.) Others, maybe not (i.e. the sexual revolution.) Nevertheless, songs such as this and others that gained popularity became themes for a generation in flux.

Churches changed as well over time. Some for the better. Others. . .well maybe not. Over the last few decades we have seen the advent of the church growth movement, the growth of para-church organizations, the birth and subsequent death (well, basically) of the emergent church, the focus on being seeker-sensitive, the development of labels such as “traditional” and “contemporary” when it comes to worship styles (which by their nature are labels that mean different things to differnt people) and categorical shifts in emphases in areas such as youth ministry, family ministry, men’s and women’s ministries, and the like.

There are always those voices that speak of needed adjustments in church practice as culture changes. Some have wrongly attributed these changes to keeping the message “relevant.” That’s a misnomer. The Gospel is always relevant and always will be. The local church, however, that has been accused of sliding into irrelevancy often is just a victim of becoming an inwardly-focused organization that has forsaken the missional commands of the New Testament.

Hurry Up, We Have To Do Something!

Unfortunately, many churches realize they are on life support when it’s too late. Of course, with God, it’s never too late. I get that. However, I have been in numerous churches over the years, full of nice, loving people who have forgotten their mission. They gather, listen to sermons, go to Sunday school, worship through giving and singing, while the community surrounding them really doesn’t even notice they exist. Then, as if finally awakened from a deep sleep, they acknowledge they have had far more funerals in their building recently than baptisms and begin to see the writing on the wall. Something has to be done.

In some cases, these well-meaning believers hire a young pastor or maybe an associate pastor with the instructions to reach “those people out there.” It’s a noble gesture, but often doesn’t match true expectations. While the new pastor may have the greatest intentions to reach the community, and with the backing of those who called him to do just that, he often discovers the message given and the actual expectations are different.

While the instructions were to “reach those people out there” the actual, non-verbal instructions were “reach those people, but don’t force us to change anything in here.”

I have talked with numerous young ministers who have experienced this very thing. In most cases, they don’t last in these churches. In the most severe cases, they find themselves out of ministry fully.

Reaching Millenials While Keeping Boomers & Busters

Generational differences are real and as the times change they become more and more evident. Many church leaders track these trends, but others discover them naturally as one generation matures and the next steps into leadership roles. A church that only reaches an older generation will have a room full of wisdom and potentially no debt, but will not be as effective in reaching younger people in the community.

Conversely, a church thath only reaches Millenials will have a lot of energy and will “Like” ministries and movements that address social issues such as trafficking and justice, but will find it difficult to finish any significant task and may discover the funding to lack for all areas.

I’m not throwing stones. I’m simply stating facts. The Pew Research Center, as well as other surveying groups, have affirmed that young people (ages 18-29) are less religiously affiliated than any other generation in our nation. Unfortunately, the trending is that this number will continue to decline. The statistics mirror that which has been happening in Europe for decades. The times, they are a-changin’ it seems.

The Nones

The rise of the “Nones” is alarming for those within the church. We discussed this last Saturday during our prayer gathering.

So, how does a church that desires to “be all things to all people” so that we may reach some for the Gospel, do this? How does an established church with almost a century of history adjust processes and programming in order to remain effective ambassadors for Christ in this culture? The answer may seem simple. It may even sound like a cliche, but when lived out fully, it is not. It is the Gospel in action. Regardless of generational makeup or church culture, living missionally is the key. It leads to viewing the community surrounding one’s church as the mission field. This inevitably leads those within the church to begin living as missionaries. Perhaps this is what God meant when he called us his ambassadors?

Living missionally removes the typical church marketing strategies that intend to sell a program or ministry to a community that doesn’t want or think they need it. No longer are church members bragging about their great church or the ministries offered. Here’s a newsflash – lost people aren’t thinking about the church and therefore, do not view what the church has to offer as something they need, much less want.

Living missionally leads Christ-followers to love their neighbors and to offer that which they do need – the good news of Jesus Christ. The Gospel! That changes everything.

Avoiding the Tsunami

I have seen a number of local churches in our city take steps to avoid the coming tsunami. These churches are different from the ones described above in one very significant way. These senior saints desire to see those in their changing community reached and are willing to sacrifice “their” church for the sake of the Kingdom. It’s an amazing transition. By sacrificing the concept of it being “their” church, they are affirming the reality that they are God’s church and the mandate given by Christ in the Great Commission is as valid today as ever. These “traditional” churches with a majority of older members are as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, as any “contemporary” church in the community.

Know the Times

In reading Pastor Mark Driscoll’s latest book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future?, some points really struck me the culture.

  • It is estimated that one quarter of unmarried women between the ages of 29 and 39 are currently living with a partner and about half have lived at some time with an unmarried partner.
  • Over half of first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation.
  • Over 60% of high schoolers “agree” or “strongly agree” that cohabitation before marriage is a good idea.
  • Churches that market themselves as a great place for the entire family, with service times on Sunday morning that work for young families, a great kids’ program, rocking student ministry, family camps, and daytime Bible studies for stay-at-home moms, are inadvertently telling the majority of Americans – singles – they are not welcome and to say away.

These points, and many others from various sources, all echo that which we know to be true – the western church is in trouble. In many cases, it is on life support, surviving on the tithes and attendance of an older generation while lamenting the fact that reaching the young, uncommitted “nones” is not easy.

Whoever said it would be easy?

God has promised that His church would prevail. However, he never promised that the local gathering on the corner that meets in a building with the name “church” on it would always be around. In fact, according to history, every local fellowship has a shelf-life. You don’t see anyone talking about the current work of the great church in Corinth or Ephesus any longer, do you?

So, while we’re here, we are called to honor God, spread the Gospel and do whatever it takes to be His uncompromising ambassadors in the community he has placed us. That focus and appropriate action will help us avoid the coming tsunami.

It must be less about “our” church and more about His.

- See more at: http://getreal.typepad.com/get_real_with_david_tarki/2013/11/avoiding-the-coming-tsunami-of-church-closure.html#sthash.Y7VzuNFI.dpuf

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About David Tarkington

David Tarkington is the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Orange Park, Florida. He has served on the pastoral staff at First since January 1994. Beginning in 2005, David began serving as the Senior Pastor.

David serves as the leader of the EngageJax Network's Expand Team. EngageJax is the network of Baptist churches focused on leading churches to engage the city of Jacksonville, Florida for the sake of the Gospel.

David is a graduate of the University of North Texas and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

David is married to Tracy and they have two children, Ashley and Daniel.

First has led out in the community as a missional church through school partnerships, community adoption and crisis ministry. David has led First to focus on three primary foci - Orphan Care, Global Missions and Church Planting.

  • Scoti Springfield Domeij

    I was propelled against my will into single parenting in 1990. I was raised a PK by first generation Christian parents , who talked about how Christ changed their lives, which is what I thought normative Christianity was. Not! My traditional values and character never changed because my minister husband chose to dishonor his marriage vows. My reception at church was no longer supportive. To add to my devastation, how those in the church viewed me changed. I was no longer welcome, my presence was just tolerated. I could attend events, but I was excluded from real community. I knew that God valued my family, but the church ‘family’ did not. The married church’s attitude toward single-parent families also divorced (Hebrew: garash, meaning to drive out, expel, cast out, drive away, divorce, put away, thrust away) my family and me. Did married church leadership think my children would not notice?

    Divorce invalidated any insight I shared: If you lose a single parent, you have not lost one generation, but you’ve lost two generations. Why would our children care to attend churches that treat(ed) their single parents with so little regard?

    In biblical times, widows were women who lost both their husbands and other males charged to support them,
    including those unable or unwilling to fulfill their obligations. God’s Hebrew root word for widow, ‘alman, means, “discarded, forsaken.” Even though God warned, “You shall not afflict or oppress any widow,” (Exodus 22:22; Jeremiah 7:6; Jeremiah 22:3; Zechariah 7:10), married church leadership has failed to defend orphans or plead for justice for the widow, (Deuteronomy 10:18; Isaiah 1:17). The promise of Deuteronomy 14:29 says your work [deeds, "work of Jehovah"] will be blessed if the widow and orphan are invited to eat and be satisfied. Married church leadership has failed to carry out the message in James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The church world bears the stains of the world — prejudice — by rejecting those who Jesus valued and embraced. And now, those you rejected, are rejecting you.

    Interestingly enough, when God gave Moses the laws and commandments, the cultural norm was for pagan kings to provide for widows and orphans. However, God gave this ministry of caring for the widows and orphans to His people. God’s economic system (third year of the tithe, don’t reap everything from the fields) provides for women and children whose male leadership either will not or cannot provide financially.

    Deuteronomy 14:28-29: 28 “And at the end of every third year you shall bring out a tithe of your produce of that year and store it within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the LORD your God will bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.”

    Deuteronomy 26:10-13: 10 Now behold, I have brought the first of the produce of the ground which You, O Lord have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God; 11 and you and the Levite and the alien who is among you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and your household.12 “When you have finished paying all the tithe of your increase in the third year, the year of tithing, then you shall give it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan and to the widow, that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. 13 You shall say before the Lord your God, ‘I have removed the sacred portion from my house, and also have given it to the Levite and the alien, the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed or forgotten any of Your commandments.

    Acts 4:32-34: And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

    I find it interesting that the first church fight in Acts was about how the Greek widows were ignored. What if every third year, every church deposited the tithes into an account to care for the widows and orphans? How would that change your ministry outreach and the perception of today’s widows and orphans that you’re all moralizing, religious rhetoric and no-love-your-neighbor-as-yourself-in-action?

  • David Tarkington

    Thanks for the comment Jason. The call to “GO” and embrace the larger world view does not negate being God’s ambassador in one’s own family or community. I believe the command to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the world is still valid (as do you) but not necessarily a command to do one, then the other, then the other. As the world shrinks due to the internet and travel options, the “go” to all these areas is to be concurrent.

    Thanks again for the comment. I really appreciate it.

  • Jason Pieratt

    I enjoyed the article David. I’m a missionary based out of Texas and I often tell my friends serving the poor around the world in Christ’s name seems like a cake walk compared to being a Pastor in American today. I wouldn’t trade places for anything (outside Gods clear call to make the change).

    As a missionary who works with churches and missionaries around the world I found one of your final comments to be rather potent.
    So, while we’re here, we are called to honor God, spread the Gospel and do whatever it takes to be His uncompromising ambassadors in the community he has placed us. That focus and appropriate action will help us avoid the coming tsunami.

    I agree we need to be uncompromising ambassadors in the community He has placed us but I also think if that is where churches start and stop their efforts can become myopic. They only see what is around them and that, in part, is what causes much of what you described as the problem with aging churches who don’t want to change. Why pursue a larger world view and attitude of service (embrace the GO) when it is easier (and I am encouraged by Pastor) to just serve where I am? Perhaps just focusing on one community is a shallow, self focused understanding of the Great Commission that hurts those who embrace it?
    I always have more questions than answers!
    Thanks for the thoughts.
    Keep leaning into the good work.

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