Soapbox: Growing Up but Not Growing Out

This is a usual problem among churches these days. I’ve seen it happen more often than not. A church with about 350 seats will usually grow to about 275 members and then the evangelistic fervor slows to a stop leaving the 275 to grow up, mature, and slowly start dying off. 

It usually starts long before any of the symptoms start showing up. The fist symptom is that the numbers start growing by church transfers and not evangelism. This can be one of the quickest ways to kill the evangelistic mission of the church. It appears that the church is growing because the services start filling up, but what is really happening is the church is herding the sheep and not reaching non-Christians. What the church is left with is usually a surplus of disgruntled church members who have been saved as long as they can remember and have a disparaging word for just about anything that doesn’t suit their temperament: grumpy.

The second symptom is when the majority of growth comes through the nursery as church members have babies faster than the old people can die off. Eventually this starts to even off – there are as many dying as there are being born. But by then it is too late because with the rates of young adults leaving the faith, the middle quickly disappears while the old and young are left behind.

The final symptom comes after it is too late to change anything. One day the church wakes up and that there are no youth or young adults left. You don’t believe me? I’ve seen it happen. I was doing pulpit supply in an old church when I noticed that there was no one under the age of 40. Apparently they had a Sunday school for 26 weeks of the year when one of the members had custody of their two grandchildren every other weekend. I call this phase the nursing home stage of the life of a church. It’s usually followed by the funeral home stage, the grave-yard era, and then a post-modern art exhibit. 

How does this happen? It’s usually a result of the leadership of the church being short sighted. When young men start in the ministry they are usually viberant and excited about rolling up their sleeves and making progress in their community. But as the group grows, the ministry becomes more demanding, and grumpy members start fires. Then the pastor loses steam and resorts to a slower, more winded, pace.

How can this be fixed? Well, it’s not by the effort that most churches consider. Hiring young fresh meat to either take over or give the current pastor a run for his money is not the answer. No, the only way to fix the problem is to change the process and root out the problem. I like the testimonies of Tullian Tchividjian and Matt Chandler who took over very staluwart ministries. Both pastors drew the line and said, “This is what we’re going to do and we’re not going to cater to those of you who only leached the last pastor of every drop of life.” (My paraphrase of course)

I’m a church planter. I don’t have the long lasting perseverance that some pastors have to tolerate the crowd that is dragging their feet and complaining about non-essentials. Right now I am leading a 50 year old radio ministry whose target audience is a 40 and over crowd, but that’s alright because there are 10,000 people turning 40 every day in America. There’s a need for national ministries like this, if they can continue growing out and not just growing up. The problems I’m facing is that most of our listening audience used to listen to our host, Dr. John DeBrine, back when he was young and cutting edge (John turns 87 on Sunday but is as quick and sharp as any man I’ve met). Songtime grew to an average size ministry that was sustainable and stopped expanding. Now the listening audience has all grown up with John, but the ministry is slowly shrinking because supporters are dying off and energy is fading quick.

So what am I doing here? I’m bringing my church planting drive to a ministry that is desperately needed. Thankfully, there is a great attitude from John, the board, and the rest of the staff to bring some life back into the ministry, to change the process, and to start expanding. So who is to know what will happen? This is a tremendous learning experience for me and a great opportunity to learn from those who have gone before us.

If you’re over 40, you can listen to the Songtime program online at songtime.com. (As a special note, they used two of my segments for yesterdays broadcast. Check it out!)

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