By Tom Ehrich
A congregation filled with people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, was asked what they want for their church.
Their answer: more young families, more children, more kids in Sunday School.
That answer, in turn, has two parts or motivations. One is to see their beloved church survive. A congregation where the average age is 65 simply cannot count on a future unless it can drive its demographic profile younger. The typical congregation must grow 20% a year just to stay even, because of attrition by death and moves out. An elderly congregation faces even more daunting survival requirements, maybe 25% to 30% growth to stay even.
The second motivation is to reclaim the picture of health they knew when they were children and young adults in church. Many want to reclaim the church of, say, 1957, when they were young and when the pews were filled with life and the Sunday School with children. That was a great era for churches and, as I recall, a great era to be a regular participant. Church was fun.
These motivations confront two dilemmas. One is that growing an elderly church is profoundly difficult. A growing church tends to experience constant change. The attitude is, “Let’s try this.” With a high tolerance for risk, leaders push forward without fearing failure. Leaders give permission to try “3 and to fail “3 rather than see their role as preserving a heritage. Longtime members nearly always push back when leaders pursue an agenda of change and fresh ideas. When the leaders are young and cohesive, they can handle the pushback with good humor. But when the leaders themselves are elderly, pushback is coming from their friends, their own kind.
The second dilemma is that significant growth, especially with young adults, will lead a congregation away from its current norms. Sunday worship, most especially, is everything to older members, but not to younger and newer. They are looking for community, mission, family-friendly activities. To engage with young adults, a church will need to offer weekday activities, mission teams and mission trips, small groups, house churches, spiritual development, and support in addressing significant life issues, such as work-life balance, anxious childrearing, political values. Pouring resources into Sunday worship simply doesn’t accomplish those goals.
Moreover, when this congregation does attain a new level of health, it won’t look anything like the church of 1957. It will still worship on Sunday, but more and more in fresh and contemporary ways. It will teach children in the faith, but more and more by supporting parents and by involvement-oriented activities such as mission work, rather than Sunday classes. Leaders who emerge from this younger cadre will want to see a smaller proportion of resources and staff time going to Sunday worship.
Perhaps hardest of all, for this church to grow, it will look outward, not inward. It will be increasingly open to the full diversity of the surrounding community. It will embrace ideas, lifestyles, family practices, even languages that don’t fit neatly into “our kind.”
A fervent desire to grow is certainly far better than a glum willingness to let the church die. But leaders need to understand exactly what prices will need to be paid. They need to speak openly to their congregation about what a survival strategy and a growth strategy will entail. They will need to hire clergy and staff who can handle a growth agenda.
Survey results say what they want. Now they need to know what will be required and helped to accept it, even if they don’t like it.