Sunday, November 7, 2010


A friend of mine just came back from her denomination's conference, where the attending clergy were informed that the state of Missouri has an "oversupply" of churches of her denomination.

I hear that, and all I can think is, "Really? An 'oversupply'? Is that what they are calling it now?"

This particular conference has a school of thought that claims that young people will not attend an old church (or a church with old people in it). Money is given exclusively to new church starts, rather to the renovation and renewal of the old.

This might (might) be somewhat contrary to what I believe, and the life I live. My house is 113 years old. My current church is 106, to replace a building built over 50 years earlier. The previous church was constructed in 1868, to replace the building that was not big enough for the growing city. The one prior to that (where I visited last weekend when I was at a wedding out of state) was built in 1928. The last is also the youngest congregation I was a member of, having been founded in 1917. For me, it's almost a new church. I'm in my mid twenties, and I have, as an adult, only been attracted to and a member of old churches.

But it isn't just about me. It's also about the singles, couples, and young families who are also members of these congregations. I am fortunate that I have been able to witness a church come back from the brink of closure three times now, in all three congregations, to go from an average member age in the upper 70s to somewhere around 50. That's a huge drop. It reflects that I am not the only young person called to an older church with traditions, with elegance and graciousness, and to a church building that needs work.

It's also about the older members, mature in faith and life, who are trying on limited incomes and limited physical and emotional resources, to make their churches live. It's about the people who have given up on going to church, on being active members of a Christian community, because the administrations of their denominations have given up on them.

I don't know that the conference has an "oversupply". I think they may have "under-enrollment." Churches are not schools - we must seek and find members, encourage growth within our communities, as communities. We know how to do these things - there have been a lot of books written on it, and many of the same strategies that work for new church starts work just as well or better with congregational growth where there is a base to start from. One cannot build without a foundation, and an existing congregation, building, and tradition are often that solid rock, held together with faith, love, and a determination that is awesome to behold.

We would not tell a Christian of many years that their faith is no longer valid because they are Old. We would not presume to say that their life does not matter, their Christianity is in question, because they have held their beliefs as an adult for more that 30 years, to say nothing of the years of formation in that faith. Why is it ok to say that a Christian community is no longer valid because it is old? That their faith and beliefs don't matter, because their membership, their building, their congregation is no longer young? Is it not better to take this community, full of the resource of experience, and help them share that with others? Is that not the mission of the church, of the community?

These are churches, first and foremost communities of Christ, and in Christ is renewal. Taking older building and older congregations does a couple of things for these communities - the newer members find an established home, without having to create something from whole cloth. And older members who are mature in their faith are renewed in that faith - taking something that has become rote and bringing new life back into it through the infectious enthusiasm of the young. The older members also balance the new, being the steadying influence that has been here before and will be here again, knowing that God is with us in all tests and trials of life. They should mentor and exemplify what it means to live a life in faith and a life in the church...and how to do so without burning out. 

I will not argue that there are not churches that should close. Sometimes, rural population shifts mean that there really just aren't enough people in a geographic area to be a viable congregation. Sometimes the politics and personalities that caused declines in attendance and membership are still around, tainting any effort. But 240 churches with those problems? In one state? That argues for misallocation of resources.

New church starts primarily attract people who are also new in their faith, seeking a home. They are bright and shiny, attracting people who are young and enthusiastic. Their faith has not yet had time to mature. And when they run into problems, when the personalities fueling the new congregation move away or have life occur, the churches often sputter and decline. When the money from the diocese or district or sponsor runs out and they have to be self-supporting, they find that the resources they thought they had aren't there...and there is not enough of a solid faith community of people who understand how to make a church work and be viable, who are also willing to put in the enormous amount of effort and money to keep that new church going.

Older churches understand what it is like to slog through tough times. They have members who are willing to work, who have tried to keep going in the face of adversity...and they've mostly succeeded. If we give those churches a hand, spend money to repair their buildings, bring in someone of vision to help others see possibilities, create a viable plan for renewal, and put some weight behind it...that solid foundation can be built upon again, renewed and strengthened in faith, in tradition, in love.

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