My high school government teacher had a bumper sticker hanging on her wall that read, “The floggings will continue until morale improves.” For many in the church, I have no doubt that’s what it feels like whenever we talk about church vitality, sustainability, etc. No matter how well presented, it can feel like a judgment. Nobody likes feeling judged.
In my new role as Vital Congregations Developer, I put together a training that takes just a few hours to present. My hope is simple; get people talking and thinking about church vitality, where they see it, and where they don’t.
As part of that presentation, I added a slide on a whim. After the first section talking through George Bullard’s fantastic work on congregational life cycles, I added an old black & white picture of about a hundred people crowded outside a nameless small church. I’ve no clue where the church is or when exactly the picture was taken. I only know it came up on a Google image search. I also know I’ve seen one like it hanging somewhere in every church I’ve served.
They should all have a caption that says, “The good old days.” If your church is more than 50 years old, I bet you have one somewhere, too.
Under the picture I put the line, “It’s not your fault.” When I first put this in, I planned for this to be just a five-minute chat about how things that worked before don’t necessarily work today because times are different.
To my surprise, this small section generated the most positive feedback as any.
The truth is that most of us have inherited expectations, buildings, budgets, and programing that were crafted in the 60s and 70s. I asked this first room of people how many people worshiped in buildings that were built or expanded sometime around those decades. Every hand went up.
There is a reason for that.
Two important things happened at once around that time. First, the baby boom kids were entering school age. Suddenly, there were more children in our neighborhoods than ever before. In response, we added education buildings, expanded Sunday Schools, and built strong summer VBSs. Check the chart below. That mountain in the middle is all those kids being born.
So we had more kids to deal with then ever. Fast forward to today, and population growth is basically stagnant. Translation: there just aren’t that many kids around as there used to be. No wonder our camps are empty and our Sunday school rooms are full of storage.
The second thing that happened was the rise of communism and President Eisenhower’s response to it. About a month before his inauguration, Eisenhower said in a speech, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” The president was encouraging people to go to church to prove how truly American they were. This theme would be picked up by countless other politicians, reporters, and community leaders. The message was clear: Be American. Go to church. Any church.
Two years later, as if to cement the point, “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance. A large part of the argument for adding it was the idea that what really sets us apart from the commies is our belief in God. Most people today don’t know “under God” wasn’t originally part of the pledge, but it’s true.
In fact, for most of the last half of the twentieth century, it was not Communism vs. Democracy, it was Communism vs. Christianity.
So, we have kids all over the place and massive social pressure to attend church to prove you were “one of us.” The challenge to churches was to offer the best religious goods and services possible. If you did that well, then your pews (and plates) would be full.
Fast-forward again to today where social pressure to attend church is near zero. Parents today face more pressure for their children to be at soccer practice than church.
What is the church to do?
First we have to recognize that times really are different. Truly, what worked before won’t work the same today. That is not to say that doing it before was wrong. Far from it. Most churches were simply reacting to the times in which they lived. Kids everywhere? Then build kid’s programing. It was logical and, frankly, appropriate.
Saying times have changed isn’t to say that what happened before was bad, it’s just simply stating a fact. There were plenty of quality buggy makers who were put out of business by the car. Not because they built bad buggies, or that they never should have built buggies in the first place, it’s that society changed how it moved around.
So, no, you’re not crazy. Once, not so long ago, having strong Sunday school and a good choir was enough to make the church grow. Those programs you cherish did, once, bring in a lot of people and expose them to the good news of Jesus Christ.
So, please, give yourself a break.
And, yes, change is coming to the local church faster and faster. No, it’s not going to look the same moving forward. To reach people with the good news today will mean having different priorities, activities, and focus.
Decades ago, the church rose to the challenge of the baby boom. Building all those Sunday school units wasn’t easy or cheap. Today, the challenges are different but the goal is the same: Share the love of God with our neighbors. Similarly, it won’t be easy or cheap.
With God’s help, the one who has guided the church for almost two millennia, I have no doubt we will be equal to the task.