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How (Not) to Rejuvenate an Aging Church

How (Not) to Rejuvenate an Aging Church

Society has been programmed to associate health with youth.  The underlying message of countless television and magazine ads today is that their products will make you look or feel younger.  Men’s health publications are filled with “ED” and “Low T” remedies.  Skin care and hormone replacement therapy options dominate the pages of women’s health web sites.  Cosmetics and plastic surgeries promise surface-level reversal of the vagaries of time and age – making us feel better about ourselves even when we aren’t actually any healthier.  All the emphasis on rejuvenation has even convinced many Americans that how healthy they appear is more important than how healthy they really are.

Church leaders are not immune to the power of those ubiquitous, subliminal messages.  We’re launching a new 5-part series on church health, and rejuvenation is the ideal place to begin.  Many pastors believe rejuvenation is the key to restoring and maintaining the health of their churches.  The addition of young families makes churches feel youthful again – stronger, growing and vibrant.  Yet similar to plastic surgery, seeing more kids in the children’s ministry and fewer grey hairs in worship services do not mean the church is any healthier.

Only pastors who define church as an institution would think to link the recovery of youthful exuberance to the average age of the church members.  For them, attracting younger members is about ensuring the future viability of the church as older members pass away and must be replaced or the church dies with them.  Pastors of aging churches realize how challenging it is to survive on the meager giving capacity of those on fixed incomes.  They understand that building an exciting children’s ministry is a prerequisite for attracting young families, knowing it will have the same effect as TV ads for the latest toy – getting kids to beg their parents to come to church.

However, church is not an institution.  The Greek word “ekklesia” means the “assembly” of “called out ones”.  The English word for church means “those belonging to the Lord”.  Therefore, church health is not about the physical state of the organization – it’s about the spiritual state of its members.  The path to church health is not rejuvenation, just like the path to individual health is not cosmetics or ED pills.  Nursing a church back to better health requires the same prescriptions necessary to restore the health of most people:

  • Eating Right – Diving into scripture, through sermons, group study, intensive discipleship, and individual worship
  • Working Out – Practicing the Great Commandment and Great Commission through following Jesus’ model of serving others and sharing the Gospel

As a result of challenging members to eat right and work out, the collective church will lose weight – and get healthier.  Shedding unwanted pounds is a key to better health for many Americans and for churches as well.  Perennial fence-sitters and church consumers who will never commit to giving their lives fully to Jesus, but simply shop for the best “customer experience”, do immeasurable damage to the body of Christ.  Their lukewarm, disingenuous attitudes poison other parts of the body.  Their presence tempts pastors to make efforts to retain and appease them to avoid losing members and income, depriving mature Christians of the “deeper truths” Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians.  Asking them to “eat better” and “start exercising” would drive many toward the exits, but the church would become healthier as each “morbidly obese” Christian left the building.

Why Rejuvenation is So Misunderstood…

The prevailing model for running a church is deeply rooted and perpetuated by articles and books by well-known pastors, seminaries and church consultants.  Their teachings and assessments of church health implicitly define church as an institution rather than as “called out ones” or “those belonging to the Lord”, therefore recommending improper remedies based on that flawed assumption, such as:

  • Bring in Young Families – by investing heavily in facilities and programs for children
  • Invite, Involve, Invest – Reach out and pull in (attract and retain) rather than build in and send out (disciple and commission)
  • Multiplication – not of disciples (individuals) but planting more church or launching more campuses, replicating institutions with the same flawed definition of “church” that ignore their intended, biblical “customers” (the lost in the community)
  • Lead Better – leadership is today’s buzzword and hottest selling church-growth concept (yet a solution that simply puts a bandaid on gaping wounds)
  • Measure “Health” – such as nickels, noses, number doing church chores, and average age, all of which see “health” as dedication and loyalty to the institution

When church is defined biblically, suddenly those barometers of organizational health give way to a renewed perspective where the health of individual members of the church takes precedence.  For example, an aging church can be healthy and remain so if:

  • They consume a steady diet of God’s Word, and elderly retirees have more time for personal discipleship than busy families with small children
  • Retirees also have more bandwidth to live out their faith by serving the Lord outside the “4 walls”, whereas every spare minute in the lives of young families is consumed by soccer games and cheerleading practices
  • Healthy older Christians will naturally attract and will be more active in bringing in a whole new generation of healthy younger Christians

Unhealthy Christians of any age are more likely to spend much of their time around other unhealthy Christians, meaning they would probably invite other unhealthy Christians to come to church.  In fact, most unhealthy church members probably don’t invite anyone to church, leading to the same eventual demise experienced by unhealthy aging churches.

Ironically, the oldest members of a church may be some of the healthiest believers in the building.  Rather than push them out (in the ways we’ll discuss next), why not just make them (and everyone else) even more spiritually healthy?

How NOT to Rejuvenate…

This 3,000 member church was aging.  It was located in a wealthy suburb but most young families were heading to the three other megachurches down the road, particularly the one across the street listed among the fastest growing in the country thanks to its strategy of building the city’s “best” facilities for kids.  Although the aging church was growing, well financed and actively engaged in the local community, the pastor was getting increasingly concerned about its future.  He hired consultants who had worked with several well-known megachurches to help them rejuvenate.  Their recommendations were drastic and implemented swiftly:

  • Shut down local missions, releasing those employees and slashing giving to local ministries – because young families have so little time to do any “charity” work
  • Upgraded the band and raised the decibel level – giving it a concert feel
  • Geared sermons toward parenting, relationships and the victory that the Gospel provides to churchgoers
  • Gave out more candy and played more games with the kids – no more boring memory verses
  • Pitched everyone on getting involved in an activity, either serving or a fellowship group
  • Changed the “ask” message from what you should do for God to what He’ll do for you
  • More advertising, touting an exciting kid’s ministry and practical messages
  • Spruced up banners, bulletins, grounds, signage and facilities to make them more attractive
  • Launched a Public Relations strategy promoting the “good” the church is doing in the community
  • Began a heavy push for taking membership classes and joining the church
  • Changed its name to something “consumers” would want (like new life, victorious life, fresh start, hope) and dropped the word “church” when mentioning its name in conversations
  • Removed denominational references and crosses from logos, signage and the outside of the building to appeal to more non-believers
  • Started searching for dying churches to plant campuses under its new brand and attractional approach

The most concerning part is… it “worked”!  Older people left in droves.  Young families started showing up to window “shop” in response to the heavy marketing – although nearly all came from other churches.  Some of the elderly who left were great men and women of God – gone forever.  Discipleship and community impact suffered immensely.  Larger and younger certainly didn’t mean healthier in this case.  Many of the “called out ones” at the church felt it all seemed way too corporate, less like a church and more like tactics a business would use to target a profitable customer segment.

It’s Your Turn…

What concerns you about how that church tried to rejuvenate its aging congregation?  Do you believe it’s possible for a church to get younger and larger but at the same time become far less healthy?


3 Responses

  1. When I 1st got your email on this, I was excited. Finally someone had seen the issues in the Church that need to be rejuvenated. But then I read your post and discovered that you are talking about something completely different that I had imagined the post would be about. Your post is right on in what he addresses.

    But thought on this, and why I was excited about it, was that the Church as it is today is old and dying on the vine. The reason for this slow death is because the Church is not doing what it is supposed to be doing and the Church is not keeping up with the changing times in which we live.

    The Church, for starters is you and me, and not a 4 walled institution. Many Pastors treat “Their” 4 walled Churches like they are it. Many Pastors, especially full times Pastors, have lost touch with the people of the Church both inside and outside their 4 walls.

    I am a fan of the TV show “Undercover boss”. In the shows Company CEO’s go undercover as workers in their own companies for a few weeks so they can re-connect with their workers and discover good and bad things that are going on inside their companies that they had no clue about.

    I think we need something called “Undercover Pastor” where a Church Pastor goes undercover as one that attends their church so they can feel what its like to attend their Church and address the good and bad things that are going on.

    Next, the mission statement on the Church is to take care of God’s people both inside and outside the 4 walls of the Church building. Few, if any, Churches do this. Many seem to have taken up the false view that they should not be taking care of anyone outside their 4 walls. But Pastors are not even properly taking care of those inside.

    Needs like Food, Clothing, jobs, emergency gas etc… are in every Church in America. But all most Pastors do is pray for those in need, which is worthless. God through James tells us that Faith (Which is what prayer is) is worthless without works. Works means putting action to that faith by providing those people in need with Food, Clothes, jobs etc…

    When you say Revitalize the Church, this is what I am thinking.

  2. I’ve often used the phrase “It’s not about ‘church'”. My Dad was a pastor for many years and he told a story of when he did an interim work in a small dying church. He said “all I did was preach The Gospel and the church nearly doubled in size in the time I was there.”

    “church” is all about Christ! And not about building up an organization. I’ve often questioned church planting; I don’t think it’s a bad thing or wrong by any means, but I’ve often questioned the method and purpose. The last thing that a lot communities need is another church. but what communities do need is Jesus!

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Root cause for the Church's decline & its path to Revitalization

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