If we are to renovate the church of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to decide what the hoped for outcome of a person spending forty years in our midst would look like.
~Renovate or Die, Bob Farr and Kay Kotan
Long-term thinking is difficult. Let’s just be upfront about that from the outset. It’s difficult because a lot can happen in forty years. Who knows if any of us will be here in forty years. Certainly, I hope so, but as I sit here at the age of 41, I know that a lot of things can happen in such a time. With this in mind, how can a church possibly think about what things will look like in forty years?
In truth, we can’t. The reality is that we can’t even make a five year plan any more. Before the pandemic hit, my current church was doing some great things. We were involved in multiple programs to offer food to those in need. We were averaging a good number in worship on Sunday morning. We had regular youth and children’s activities. We had plans to enhance all of these things and to really reach out into our community. Then we shut down for three months. Then we reopened with extreme caution. Then we shut down again. Then we reopened with extreme caution. But, apart from Sunday morning, not much was happening.
In a couple weeks, we are going to have a big meeting to start talking about things that we can do to start ramping up once again. In a moment of complete vulnerability, I have to say… I’m nervous. I’m worried that not enough people will show up. I’m worried that nobody will really want to do anything, and we’ll be doing nothing but entering into a deeper period of stagnation, when we should be coming out of it. It’s hard to think long-term, when the short-term is so uncertain.
And then I think back to a story from Scripture that also focused on forty years. After the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were in the wilderness. It was a struggle. There were questions, doubts, fears. There was a lack of faith, idolatry, and a desire to return to Egypt. These were people who were stuck in generational slavery. They had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years before they were set free. They didn’t know how to exist on their own, and when people are afraid, they default to what they know. The Israelites didn’t know anything but slavery. Eventually, they got themselves into some serious trouble with the Lord, and they were to wander the wilderness for forty years.
I’ve heard it said before that it didn’t take them forty years to get out of Egypt, but it took forty years to get Egypt out of them. I believe that with my whole heart. Generational issues take generations to overcome. That’s why we still see so many blatant racists in the world today. They are espousing what they learned from their parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from theirs, and so on. In many cases, instead of breaking the generational curse, they pass it on to the next.
When we talk about an outcome of a person who spends forty years in our church, we’re talking about multigenerational ministry. We’re talking about reaching people of different ages, through different points in their lives. It’s an overwhelming task, to be sure, but it can be done. And it is this type of thinking that is going to really make a difference.
Now, I realize that the people who spend forty years in a church are becoming increasingly rare. Traditionally, youth drop out of church for a few years after graduating from high school, and then, they would return when they started their families. But I don’t believe that is as common any more. Some never return. In some churches, there is some very toxic theology that is being taught, and once they get out from under it, they are less likely to try any church ever again.
Now, hopefully, your church isn’t a representation of this type of toxic theology. Even so, we are seeing the “regular” attendance dropping from weekly to monthly (or less often). It’s entirely possible to not lose a single member in the local church, and still see a steep decline in average worship attendance simply because people come less often than they did before.
Maybe they retired and have been traveling more. Maybe they have kids growing up and getting involved in activities that take them away for several weekends in a row. Maybe they have a newborn that is throwing off their rhythm and schedule. Maybe something is going on in their lives, and they just aren’t up for committing to the church as they once were. There are so many reasons to not be involved. What we really need to focus on is a reason why they should.
I think this is where forty years thinking can be important. When we have the main reason, our vision, our mission as a church, at the heart of everything we do, we can think about forty years in such a way that it is adaptable. We can’t plan out every moment of those forty years, but we can plan to stay focused on what drives us. And that is multigenerational. That is inspiring and engaging.
So, if you really want to make a difference in your congregation, in your community, start asking yourself: what is it that will drive us for the next forty years? Keep it simple. Make it memorable. And focus everything you do around that idea. People will catch the vision. People will live out the mission. And we’ll have a lot more forty years in our future.