At the regular business meeting of United Baptist Church on October 15, instead of offering my usual written Pastor’s report, I offered some pointed remarks on what I see as the future and direction of UBC. I did this because I feel the need these days to speak very plainly about the state of our congregation, and where we are headed. I am concerned that UBC is approaching a crisis point, and that it is coming more quickly than we like to think. While this is true, I also believe that God is at work in us, among us, and through us to bring about great things for his kingdom, and I suspect that he is not done with us.
So, I want to lay out before you a map of what I am see up ahead. Then I want to pose several very important questions for the congregation to consider, and then along with the Deacon Board, call the congregation to Spirit-led conversation, and intensive prayer to seek God’s face and his will for UBC.
Why Aging Matters
Let’s look at where we are headed, framing it simply in terms of numbers and time. We know that numbers aren’t really the point, and the most important things about church cannot be measured or quantified. Nevertheless, looking at numbers can sometimes warn us of spiritual problems, and even point us in the directions we should look to understand and address those problems.
If we start with one simple demographic figure, we see that our average age right now is almost 60 years. It’s a little lower than that if you count the kids under 18. If we do some basic math, we see that in 10 years the average age will be almost 70 years old. Keep in mind, that is the average. Many of us will be well beyond 70, and into our 80s.
Moreover, this means that the last of our few children will be graduating and moving away. If trend continues, these children will leave, and they will not come back. At least, they will not come back to the church.
Now 10 years may seem like a long time, but it really is not. You know how it is. A year goes by, then another, and another, and pretty soon, there you are. For instance, consider this. In January of 2019, I will have been serving as your Pastor for 5 years. Did it seem like 5 years? No? That’s what I mean. It goes by fast.
There are lots of ways to interpret those numbers, but let’s just say it in plain unvarnished terms. It is reasonable to assume that within 10-15 years, at least half of those currently attending UBC will be either in Florida (or some other retirement destination), in a nursing home, or with Jesus. It might happen sooner than that. It might happen later than that. The precise timing isn’t really the issue. This is the direction things are headed. It is happening, and it is happening quickly.
Of course, this has very important implications for ability of members to participate in the life of the church; to attend, to serve, to carry out many operations of church life and ministry. It has huge implications for giving and budgeting, paying our bills, supporting missionaries, investing in new programs and ministries.
Therefore, I can foresee a day coming, in a not-that-far-away future, when UBC becomes unsustainable. We won’t be able to pay utilities or keep the building in repair. We won’t be able to pay staff to lead our music, keep the building clean, or manage the office. We won’t be able to pay a pastor. On our current trajectory, if nothing really changes, the day is coming when everything will change.
Why People Aren’t Coming
There is another part of this picture, related to wider social trends in our society. Most of us remember what things were like 10, 20, 30 years ago. It used to be that people would come to church simply because that is what ordinary decent people do. There was no shortage of people to carry out all kinds of work in the church from washing dishes to leading Bible studies. Today, people see no need to participate in church or religion of any kind. The world outside sees the church we love as mostly irrelevant and church is no longer part of their lives.
It also used to be that if someone was seeking some kind of spiritual help, their first thought was to go to church. These days, those who seek spiritual connection or help go to yoga classes, or meditation practice, read books and attend workshops on personal development. It’s even worse than that. Many people see church as a burden on society, even a dangerous place full of alarming archaic values, where abuse hides, and greed for power and money rule.
The upshot of this is, United Baptist Church no longer can simply sit inside our brick clubhouse and wait for people to come to visit us. They aren’t coming. If we simply hope they will come if we have the right music, or a certain way of ordering our service, it won’t work because they aren’t coming in the first placed. Some churches manage to attract people by putting on a big show with exciting music, and bright lights and projected images. Mostly, they end up attracting people from other churches, often small congregations like ours. I don’t think this sort of approach is really the right path for us. Our personality has never been about putting on a big show. Our strengths (and we do have strengths) lie elsewhere.
So the old way of thinking that says, “If we are attractive enough, people will be attracted,” doesn’t work anymore. The old ways of thinking about church and how church relates to the world don’t work anymore. We must adopt new models of how we relate to the world around us. These models must be immovably grounded in the power of gospel proclamation, in sacrificial love of our neighbors, and intensive cultivation of loving relationships with those outside the church.
If we don’t do this, then our future is dim.
Why this Hurts
It is a grim thought that UBC could disappear. It seems like a real downer. We love United Baptist Church. Many of us have invested decades into this congregation. We have invested immeasurable energy and time into United Baptist Church. Some of us were raised here. Many of us raised families here. We have made friends, lost friends, and made new friends. We have spent time in one another’s’ homes, eating together and playing together. We have worked side by side, or sometimes just sat with one another, through so many tragedies and long tough times.
Even more important than that, week after week we have met together to worship the One True and Living God, proclaiming our hope in Christ and in our resurrection in him. In this way we have literally made this into a holy place, and that is not to be dismissed lightly. Our shared history runs deep and is shot through with many beautiful and memorable blessings.
Nevertheless, the consensus of the people to whom I have spoken is this. The way we have been doing things does not seem to be energizing any real change in these trends. We are not seeing other Christians wanting to join our church. Most important, we are not making new disciples. It has been perhaps 10 years since we baptized a new convert. That is a tragedy.
What is the option?
If we simply continue to do things the way we have been doing them, we face slow, steady and implacable attrition. The end of UBC is possible, and it may not be that far off.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With God's help we can change direction. It will be a step of faith, making changes trusting that God is in control. This change is very clear to me, although not necessarily easy. To continue and thrive, we must obey the mandate of our Lord Jesus to make disciples.
We can find ways to quietly and consistently reach outside our walls, to befriend and love our neighbors, and share Jesus with them where they are. As they become part of our Jesus-family, then they will become part of our church family. The question is, are we ready and willing to trust God?
A Call to Conversation
Now, I’m not ready to call this a crisis, but (as our friends in Texas say) it is fixing to be a crisis. It is dangerously close to being a crisis. Therefore, it seems to me and the leaders that some kind of response is needed. This response cannot be limited to the work the I do as your Pastor. It cannot be left up to the leaders like the Deacons or Trustees alone. It must be a congregational response.
So the deacons and I have been discussing how to foster a fruitful response. Our first thought is that we need everyone to put all our cards on the table through serious, truthful, and candid conversations about the future and direction of UBC. We need to do this openly and we need to do it together as a community.
And we need to be praying together, actively and zealously seeking God’s face, crying out for his intervention, and asking for his wisdom, courage, and power.
To that end, spearheaded by the Deacon Board, we will be engaging in these conversations along three pathways.
Let me also invite you to what (in my estimation) is the most important component of these efforts. Come to pray with us on Thursday nights at 7:00. We will pray first for a spirit of repentance, and spiritual awakening and renewal in our own hearts.
Beyond that we will also be asking God to show us what he is doing and how we can join him in it. We will ask him to provide us with the means to carry out his mission in our neighborhood. We should pray for new members, and for new disciples. We should pray that God would bring people across our path who are ready to hear the gospel and respond. We should pray that God will give us the word to give those he brings to us. We should pray that God will use United Baptist Church to advance his kingdom.
We should pray, because unless the LORD builds a house, the work of all those who work on it will be useless and for nothing. We should ask the LORD to use us as his living stones to build his spiritual house anew, a group of his holy priests, so that with the help of Jesus Christ we may continue to offer sacrifices that please God for decades to come.
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