I’m increasingly convinced that one consistent phenomenon has had a huge impact in the loss of emerging generations to the church. I call that phenomenon “hardening of the opportunities.”
When we studied the growth of new churches in our conference over the last 50 years, for the first three years they typically grew at a faster rate than the community population. The growth rate then slowed until they became stagnant at between 12 and 14 years of age. The only exception to this pattern began to occur when we saw churches start to launch second, third and fourth campuses in the early part of this century. Those churches extended their rapid growth well past the typical pattern.
To try to understand this phenomenon, I began interviewing younger adults about ten years ago about their experience of entering the church. What I heard again and again gets at the heart of why churches stop growing and why launching new campuses changes that trajectory. In a nutshell, this is what I heard from young people who had tried church and then dropped away:
“There was no place for me.”
Now clearly, they weren’t talking about physical space. They were talking about a space to “be the church.” Our church structures are highly ordered. We have officers, committees, teams, groups and staff each with defined roles and responsibilities. When those positions are filled, the local church leadership team breathes a sigh of relief and lays aside its burden until the next annual meeting. This annual hardening of the opportunities closes the door for new people to fulfill Christ’s call on their lives. This is particularly problematic for churches that want to reach younger people.
The task of leadership in the church was never to fill a discrete set of offices with names, but to participate with the Holy Spirit in calling and developing the spiritual gifts entrusted to every individual. Launching new campuses is one way that the church breaks through to embrace more opportunities for the Spirit’s calling and gifts to be deployed. But it is not the only way to break the hardening of the opportunities that blocks the growth of the church.
Last week I asked a young musician what the best advice he could offer to churches about how to reach people from his generation. “To be open,” he said “because I’ve been in a lot of situations where the worship team was a very close-knit group and they didn’t really want to include anybody else and or give anyone else a chance to serve or express their talents. I would just encourage them to be open and willing to work with new talent [gifted people] and to allow them to shine and encourage them, to be there to help build them up in their faith to enable them to harness their talent to the best of their ability for God.”
Jesus talked about this hardening in the parable of the wineskins. “You don’t put new wine in old wineskins,” Jesus said.
New wineskins, new campuses, new worship teams, new musical groups, new small groups, new mission projects, new arts groups, new prayer teams, new spiritual sensitivity to the giftedness and calling of the people we meet. These are among the cures for hardening of the opportunities.
Sounds like a good idea? Want some help making it a reality? Consider hosting or participating in a Younger Disciples – Stronger Church workshop in your area.