A church with many multi-generational members has found their worship attendance declining by 20% in the last 5 years. Not only are there less people in the pews, but those in attendance are older. Several of the “pillars” are in their 90’s. The pastor has said, “We’re just a few funerals away from closing the doors.”
Why does he say this? Well, for one thing, the best givers are the elderly. While long time members may be used to giving 5 or 10% of their income to the church, younger members may only be giving 2%. Older members may have retired from stable jobs in union-supported manufacturing, education or government. As those jobs dry up, younger members pull their 2% gifts from a smaller income. Families are working two jobs and have less time to offer their volunteer labor to the church. They are wrestling with how they will save for their children’s college educations and future retirement, when their homes are not worth what they paid for them. And even those from the younger generation who have stable incomes are not as inclined to give to an institution. They are more motivated to give to specific mission projects and causes that inspire them.
If maintaining a steady income stream is the only way to keep the church open, then the pastor is right: a closure may be coming.
On the other hand, this church is relatively healthy. Young and old work together and share common values. They love their traditions, even if they are a little old fashioned. Their faith is strong. They have lovingly tended to their building and grounds, and are the only Reformed Christian presence in their community.
Will this church close? They may have a choice, with God’s help. But the choice won’t be easy to make.
This church wants to be who they are, as they are. But they no longer have the capacity to “reproduce” their own members through generational continuity. They must attract “outsiders” and these people will not so easily be drawn to a church deeply rooted in its own traditions and family affiliations.
If the congregation wants to stay true to their historic traditions, they can try to maintain them until the last committed members are left, and then close and pass on their building to another congregation.
If they want to continue to exist, they will need to establish a new kind of footprint in their community, reaching out to new kinds of need and sacrificing some of their cherished traditions. This may mean finding new uses for their property, focusing their mission on those outside the church instead of those inside, and/or re-training the laity for new kinds of ministry. It may even mean teaching younger members to give sacrificially, and aiming to attract a smaller but more committed group of Christians.
Even if the church succeeds at this type of revitalization, they may not be able to maintain the participation and giving levels that maintain their beautiful building and the full time clergy they have enjoyed in the past.
If they make the first choice, they remain true to who they traditionally have been and preserve a loving, tight-knit community for perhaps one more generation of local families. But they lose the presence of a church with their unique theological heritage for future generations in that community.
If they take the second choice, they lose some of the character that made them great in the past: their comfortable traditions and rituals, and their intimate knowledge of each other’s family histories. But they take a chance that, letting go of these things, their future is in God’s hands, and as new kinds of people—strangers and aliens (Eph. 2.19)–are welcomed in, some treasures of the past may be carried forward into the future.
What should the church do?