On my way to preach Sunday morning, I passed by dozens of church buildings with a variety of shapes and sizes. What I saw surprised me—and offered a decades-long “heads up” to the institution that we call “church.”
On January 15, I had the privilege of preaching for Ridgeland Drive Baptist Church in Six Mile, S.C. (Yes, we have a town called Six Mile in my home state). Services started at 10 a.m., in clear violation of all unwritten Baptist church rules and regulations.
As I headed for this semi-rural congregation, I kept driving. And driving. And driving. After getting around the 13 mph wide-load truck that was blocking the narrow two-lane, I arrived a full eight minutes before the service started.
It was a great little church—relatively new (by church standards) well-kept building. The traditional mint-green carpet and pews. Nice but not gaudy chandeliers. I felt right at home in this very traditional Baptist setting. Doubly so because I received a warm and friendly welcome from this small congregation.
That may be the key word. “Small.” Regular readers will know that small church does not bother me. In fact, I feel a bit more at home with it. But I looked around at this very nice building, these kind people, and the sprawling subdivisions growing up around it. And I had to ask: why?
Why would people not want to walk across the road from their house (and a lot of folks could) to be a part of this small, welcoming community?
True, they didn’t have flash or flare. No fancy sound system, no pyrotechnics, no guitars or drums. Just sincere people, doing their best to worship and serve. And even still, this might not be enough.
As I wandered once around the parking lot of this nice, family-friendly setting—complete with picnic area and playground—I wondered what they might do to invite more folks into this kind community. Unfortunately, I had no answers.
Then I embarked on the hour-long journey to our home. I intentionally took the long road, to see what else was happening in the communities between Liberty and east Greenville.
The nearby community revealed a lot—a beautiful little town that was largely empty. Abandoned mills and buildings, along with nice churches that probably once had full parking lots. But today, at the typical church hour of 11:30 a.m., there were plenty of parking spaces available.
So many of these buildings revealed a once-thriving congregation with full-time ministers and the need to add on new buildings. I am guessing that many of those buildings are empty and the spare land not needed. I am also guessing that somewhere inside, a pastor and deacons and members are wondering how they will manage to maintain all of this. Or perhaps they are wondering when it is time to hang it up and move on.
Even the larger, more modern churches had plenty of parking. Sure, they probably have the resources to hold out for a very long time while accessing the resources for online success. But one wonders how long that can last. Certainly this mass exodus is not impacting every church or region; but it is growing and it is a long-term question for the life of the church universal.
Church folk apparently have two typical responses to the rapid decline in overall church attendance. One is to blame everyone and everything—a card that the church has played consistently for the last 2000 years. People are lazy. People want to live in sin. People are warped by godless education and culture. People are _____________ (insert your negative assessment word here).
This is not unusual. From the time I was five years old, I heard my father and other pastors talk about what was happening and why people were not attending. We are simply witnessing an acceleration of the trends of the last 50+ years.
The second—and better—response is to begin asking questions. Why are people no longer interested? And what can we do, as a community, to respond to a hopeless and hurting world? Finally, what is Christian community going to look like in the future, even if it does not look like what we want or have now?
Neither response is easy. The former is very typical and plays to our human nature to complain about the changes happening around us. While all of the allegations against society may be true, it does little to address the problem.
The latter is personally, professionally, and organizationally challenging to even the strongest of churches. It causes us to be willing to admit that we may be doing it wrong; that we need to change; and that what we have built may no longer work. That is a bitter pill to swallow, no matter how needed or necessary it may be in a particular time or place.
A few months ago, I heard a sermon from John Roy at Pelham Road Baptist on Ecclesiastes 3. It is a text that we often read because of its lyrical beauty. In reality, it may be a beautiful warning to us that nothing stays the same. There is a season for what we have done and what we are doing. Yet that season may change at any moment, and we must choose to adapt or to die.
My fear is that far too many churches are choosing to die. Or they are scouring the landscape to copy what other churches are doing rather than being true to themselves and their calling. If faith in Christ teaches us anything, it is that things cannot remain the same if we are to remain in Jesus.
Now is the time to recognize that we are not called to be the church as it has always been. We are called to be the church in this time and place, in this era of circumstances and culture. If that looks different than the familiar or comfortable, then so be it.
People are fond of the phrase that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” I believe this to be true. But our understanding of Jesus Christ is forever changing, as is Christ’s call on us to live and act in the world as we know it. While Christ may not change, the world around us does. And we must act accordingly.
If that means giving up buildings, or meeting online, or meeting in smaller groups, or using more volunteer/bi-vocational clergy, then so be it. Better that than falling for the Fool’s Gold that it’s not our fault or our responsibility.
The Holy Spirit may call us into different spaces and different places. It may call us to give up our buildings or our status. It may even call us to work at a pizza place while we minister to the congregation. At some point, we have to be willing to do that. Such is a task that only comes through the power of the Spirit.
The Spirit does not just take us to new heights. It also leads us through new lows, and new levels of humility. Just because it is not like it used to be does not mean it is “less than.” As the Billy Joel song says, “The good ole days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”
We are losing our ability to maintain what was. Yet I still believe that this is a promise rather than a curse. May we learn to open our hearts, minds, and spirits to what may be, rather than remained chained to what was. While our communities of faith may look different, they continue to rely on the same thing: the church of Christ in the power of the Spirit.
And my prayer is that the good people at Ridgeland Drive will keep working and hoping until the Holy Spirit shows them a way forward. Amen.