Avoiding the Coming Tsunami of Church Closure

By David Tarkington

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

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.