People sometimes ask me, “Is it hard being pastor of a church where most of the people are older than you?” Truth is, I don’t know any other reality. Since I started pastoring full-time 22 years ago, I have never led any other kind of church. So when people ask, I tell them it’s a joy. These people are some of my closest friends and most faithful servants of Christ. They inspire me. I and my church would be in a world of hurt if they all suddenly left. That has been true for all 22 years of my ministry.
Of course, some things have changed in those two-plus decades. When I first started, I was pastoring mainly people from “The Greatest Generation,” who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Now, the largest single demographic group in my church is Baby Boomers, who are in their 70s to late 50s. Senior adults in churches used to be stubbornly old school, but now they have smart phones and send me emails. One thing older Christians then and now have in common: They are concerned about the future of their churches. I’m no psychologist, but I believe something happens in the mind of a devout believer sometime between the empty nest and retirement, and continues for the rest of life. They feel a consuming burden for the ongoing health of their church. They express worry about things like, “Why don’t we have as many young families here as we used to?” “Who’s going to fill all these ministry roles after we’re gone?” “I sure wish our church was out of debt.”
Of course, you don’t have to have gray (or color-treated) hair or be eligible for Social Security to be worried about the future of your church. So I as a pastor feel led to share some advice. If you fear for your church’s future, here are seven things I advise you to do:
- Pray. I hope you do this already. But beyond just a vague, “Lord, bless our church,” there are more practical ways to seek God. Pray for the leaders of the church, as Scripture commands us to do. As a church leader, I can tell you we need wisdom, courage, humility and spiritual power…to name a few. Pray for their families as well. In the New Testament, Jesus and His apostles show that they are very concerned about our unity and our faithfulness to the truth, so pray those things for your church too. Jesus told us to ask the Lord of the harvest to send workers into His harvest field. I think that’s still a great prayer to pray. Know the needs of your community and pray that God would show your church how to meet them. Pray that He would raise up men and women to serve in all those key roles that keep a church going. Most of all, pray that your church would keep Jesus at its center.
- Invest in the next generation. Last year, our ministry staff read a book called Growing Young, by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin. The authors identified 363 American churches which were doing a great job reaching youth and young adults. One of their findings was that these churches have older adults who invest in the lives of those younger than them. They don’t just pay a youth minister, they have tons of adults who hang out with teenagers, text message them during the week, and attend their sporting events and recitals. They practice “keychain leadership,” making it easy for young adults to use their skills and expertise in the church; whereas too many traditional churches have an unspoken code that says, “Wait until you’ve been here a few decades, then you can lead.” If you’re worried about your church’s future, a great place to start is to find a random young person (or couple) on a Sunday and invite them to lunch. Get to know them. Find out how you can pray for them. Follow up later and see how they’re doing. It’s so much easier to spend all our time with our own tribe. Get out of your comfort zone for a change.
- Plan for after you’re gone. One concern I hear often from older Christians is “Young people don’t give like we do. What’s going to happen to our church when we’re gone?” That’s a very good question, and one which many pastors and churches are anxiously pondering. If you are concerned about your church’s financial future, have you considered naming the church in your estate? In his book, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, J. Clif Christopher writes, “Every one of us will die one day…most of us will be richer on that day than we ever were while alive. First the bad news: You can’t take it with you. Now the good news: You won’t need it. YOU ARE, HOWEVER, STILL RESPONSIBLE FOR IT.” He goes on to suggest that we put a tithe into our wills; in other words, a sentence such as, “After all my bills are paid, please give ten percent of what’s left to ________ church.” He suggests that if we did that, churches would benefit for years to come. Have you made a plan for what happens to your stuff after you’re gone?
- Guard unity. The night before He died, Jesus uttered the magisterial prayer found in John 17. Did you know He included you and me in that prayer? Here’s what He prayed for us: “…that all of them may be one, Father, as you are in me and I am in you.” When you read on to the letters of Paul, he constantly urges each church, “Be of one mind…Count others more important than yourselves…Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Yet there always seems to be some low-level tension in any church, that boils up occasionally into full-on battle mode. Why? Because we’re sinners, period. When you add the emotional stress of people concerned about the future, you have a recipe for complaining and conflict. I do NOT believe it is wrong to criticize a church leader or to disagree with the direction your church is headed. But I also believe there are biblical, gracious, God-honoring ways to do those things. Come and speak to your pastor if you have concerns. Confront him with significant flaws you see in his character. If he responds badly, he’ll answer to God for his lack of humility. And when you hear negative chatter, ask yourself, “How would I feel if I overheard someone talking this way about my spouse or my kid?” You would step in, wouldn’t you? Well, the local church is the Bride of Christ. When we run her down, it hurts our Father. So step in—graciously of course—to say things such as, “I’m not sure that’s what actually happened. Why don’t we talk to the people who made that decision to find out for sure?” Or, “I don’t think us saying these things is helpful at all.” Or even, “I don’t always like change, either. But sometimes you have to try something new.”
- Don’t retire from serving God. Years ago, when my parents retired, an interesting and unexpected thing happened. We didn’t see them anymore. In their working years, Mom and Dad would often drive out to spend a weekend with us. Now, if we wanted to see them, we had to drive to them. What had changed? They got busier. Now that my parents no longer had to work for a living, they chose to work for the Lord. Mom volunteers at a Food Pantry. Dad teaches a Bible study class. They’re involved in tons of other stuff they wouldn’t have had time for during their careers. That’s what I mean by, “Don’t retire from serving God.” In my time in ministry, I’ve known many people my parents’ age (and older) who had this same mindset. Their wisdom and life experience combined with more time to give make them the backbone of some very important ministries. On the other hand, I’ve known others who said, “Now I have time to focus on my bucket list. I’d better hurry and do it before I’m too old.” Look, if you take a cruise to Alaska or a bus trip to New England, that’s great. If you play Pebble Beach or visit the Louvre, I will rejoice with you. But please understand something: Our true retirement comes when we walk the New Earth alongside our Savior and King. We will enjoy experiences there that will put any earthly bucket list to shame, and we’ll have unlimited time to enjoy them. In the meantime, we have a VERY limited time to reach those who don’t know Christ. Don’t waste the years and strength God has given you.
- Don’t idolize the past. I talked to a man once whose church had just started using drums in worship. He complained to the interim pastor (His church was between pastors at the time) and was told, “Friend, you need to accept the fact that the church you grew up in is never coming back.” The man told me, “It made me so mad I almost punched him, even though I knew he was right.” That pastor should have spoken more gently to my friend, but he told him the truth. One of the most frequent sins of religious people—of all ages—is when we put our preferences on the level of God’s will. We take a tool, experience, or person God used to grow us in the faith, and we idolize them to the level of believing God cannot reach people in any other way. That is idolatry. In my opinion, it causes more division and wasted energy in churches than anything else. Consider how many times you have heard (or thought to yourself) things like:
“That just doesn’t sound like church music to me.”
“When we used to knock on doors every Tuesday night, that’s when we had people getting saved.”
“I guess no preacher will ever measure up to Brother Tommy in my mind.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with that youth minister now. When my kids were teenagers, we had 200 kids there on Sundays.”
“I liked it better when the pastor wore a coat and tie.”
In Acts, we see the first Christians build a huge, vibrant church in Jerusalem. But God doesn’t stop there; He raises up Paul, who takes the message to people outside the Jewish nation. Some Christians who hear of Paul’s success are overjoyed, but many are upset. After all, the Gentile converts didn’t know or respect their traditions. Everything was going to be different. They tried to stop Paul. Thank God, they failed. Paul would later write of his philosophy of ministry: I am all things to all people that through all possible means I might save some. That is the mindset that changed the world. No one likes change. But we can’t stay where we are and go with God. We can’t serve the Lord and idolize the past at the same time. Don’t let your love for “the church you grew up in” keep you from joining God in His work.
- See outsiders the way Jesus does. When I was entering the ministry, conventional wisdom assumed the best way for a church to reach people was to hire a great ministry staff, build great facilities, and start excellent programs…then wait for people to come to church and hear the Gospel. I don’t know if that ever really worked, but it certainly doesn’t today. If a church does that kind of attractional ministry really well, it might grow a little, but only by stealing sheep from the churches down the street. Irreligious people (the fasting-growing group in the nation) aren’t looking for great preaching, choirs and youth programs. God isn’t on their radar screen. If we want to reach them, we must go to them, not wait for them to come to us. Unfortunately, many Christians know very few irreligious people well. That seems to be especially true after retirement. So we have to go out of our way, make it our mission to make these friendships. Take a look outside your front door; how many of your neighbors do you know by name? How about other people you see on a semi-regular basis: Your barber, the waitress at your favorite restaurant, your grandkid’s soccer coach, the checker at the grocery store? Do you know them well enough to know how you can pray for them? Do you know their hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties? Start those conversations. Get to know these folks well enough to pray for them regularly, and you’ll start to see them through the eyes of the One who created them…the One who died to redeem them.