Saturday, October 20, 2007

Church Generations

Quite often I am asked why don't we work with existing churches that are declining, or at least encourage church planters to move into these churches rather than start something new from scratch. Here’s some short answers to this question that I wrote recently.

Some general ideas and observations:

  • Churches tend to have a generational lifespan, i.e., most will live for the lifetime of those that started them, when that generation passes away, typically so will their churches (I’m talking sociologically with the “their” pronoun).
  • The churches each generation starts exists to take care of the spiritual needs of that generation and is endowed with their generational DNA. When younger generations express feelings like they don’t fit, they are saying that the church isn’t of their generation, it’s of their grandparents and parents’ generation. This idea is a sometimes difficult for those in our fellowship to grasp since we view the church through ahistorical lenses.
  • -Unless churches have a strong revitalization that changes their basic foundation to a new generation, they will not survive much beyond 50-70 years.
  • Statistically, only 5% of churches that reach the stage of decline, and even long-term plateaued growth, will successfully revitalize into an actively growing church again.
  • David T. Olsen’s ( research on the American church scene found that from 1990 to 2004 the established, already existing churches in America added 0% to the growth of Christianity in America. Church plants added 7%, the only growth that occurred.
  • The issue with what is now the majority of our churches in Churches of Christ is not theological, it is sociological. We developed and spread as a southern, rural oriented fellowship. Our country is now urban. The farmlands of America are generally depopulated now compared to what they were 50 years ago.
  • As a fellowship we are still wrestling to learn how to live and thrive in urban environments, though we’ve made progress in suburban environments.

Some observations from my personal experiences:

  • I’ve worked long and deeply with 4 churches that would be similar to those you have in mind. None of them have been able to respond effectively to the changes they needed to make in order to become a vital, growing church again. The issue is primarily one of DNA identity. Those members still at church are closely connected to, or they are of the founding generation. To make more the minor, incremental changes makes them “feel” that the church is changing, which is exactly the point. They become resistant on theological grounds because they do not know how to deal with the change process emotionally.
  • Almost all of the resources that we have available in Churches of Christ (lectureships, seminars, colleges and universities, missional church resources, elder link, print media, etc., etc.) are produced and designed to minister to already existing churches, all of those churches that we see around us. On a percentage of resources we have 0% of our resources focused on developing the next generation of churches that will serve the younger, urban people we see all around us. Kairos is one of only 2 church planting ministries in all the Churches of Christ who are desperately trying to help our fellowship face the future through a new generation of churches.
  • We have often spoken of a “generation” gap between those below 30 or 40 and those above. It is more appropriate to speak of this as a “culture” gap. The difference between these age groups is far larger, much more dramatic than a generational difference. In historical terms, those above 40 are the product of the printing press while those below are the product of the internet. These two generations process information differently, they perceive the world differently, they ask fundamentally different questions. For example, while those above 40 have typically asked “what is truth?” those below 40 ask “what works in life?”
  • Existing churches minister best to existing Christians while new churches minister best to new Christians.
  • As you stated, many churches are in states of decline because the predispositions they work from have taken them to that point.

So here’s the bottom line as I have experienced it, you’re correct, to work with an existing church will take lots of time and lots of effort. Will it produce results? The statistical odds are only 5% that you will see any appreciable, lasting results for long term health and growth of any church you select to work with. Certainly any work you do will help people feel loved and appreciated, and in that way it will feel good. During the 10 years I was at Cascade College I agonized deeply with how best to serve our existing churches and worked hard at it. The conclusion I came to, which is part of how God led us to our present ministry with Kairos, is that the best thing I can do for our existing churches is to help them see new healthy, growing churches and so find hope that we can make a difference for Jesus again in America.

Hope these thoughts give some further ideas to help you.




Wilson Parrish said...

As Kristen and I were seeking God's lead about where to plant, I found myself in numerous conversations with well-meaning people trying to direct our attention to one or other existing church in the last throws of decline. As I tried to explain the things you have articulated here, I sensed that they thought me insensitive. And that's just it: to whom are we to direct our sensitivities? To the believers in a declining church, or to the un-churched in a declining world through church planting?

Kathy (Cundiff) Zumwalt said...

Stan, I'm glad to see you are still just as insightful as you were when I took your classes at Cascade! I think this is a fascinating point of view that I have never considered!
I am curious if you believe this philosophy applied to the first century church, and if it did, what has gone wrong in our present day churches to make this birth to death evolution so painfull.

Ty said...

While I tend to agree with most of the thoughts here, I also believe that salvation is a process that takes place throughout the life of the church, and that we still need people to help those in existing churches to experience God's salvation in greater fullness.

I am glad that there are so many who are willing to plant churches, and I would love to be a part of that someday, but there are some who need to care for the churches in the nursing home, to lay them to rest with love and respect. Each member of the body has a God-given function, and I believe that some ministers are made to serve in these last stages of the church's life.

I realize that you were not trying to exclude that but to encourage the other, I just did not want to forget that aspect of the process in the rush to support the other.

Prople who are naturally best suited (and trained) for geriatric ministry should not rush to the infant-church maternity wards and leave their patients to die without dignity or decency; on the other hand, the fields are white and God has called workers to those infant fields: many more workers need to hear that call.