pews (Photo credit: TheChristianAlert.org)
In mid-January, I conducted one of the largest funerals of my ministry, filling the parking lot beyond capacity and sending people to park in nearby parking lots. Attempts at a head count numbered about 200 attendees. As the service began, Lisa made the organ sing as we’re so accustomed to, the music itself proclaiming her faith and confidence in the resurrection. As I carried in the processional cross, I waited for eyes to turn forward to the screen and the voices of the assembled company to cry out the words of hope and assurance in one of my favorite hymns, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” But as the organ played with defiant joy, I noticed a deafening silence. Of the 200 assembled voices, those singing were a few drops in a roaring ocean of quiet observers. Throughout the rest of the service, between obvious inexperience with responsive reading and unfamiliarity with staples like The Apostles’ Creed and even looks of skeptical confusion during the proclamation of the promise of the resurrection during the sermon, this crowd clearly had no collective experience with public worship or the Gospel.
So while I was thankful for the opportunity to proclaim the message to many for whom it was apparently their first time hearing it, it also opened my eyes to the urgency of God’s calling to us as a congregation. While I’m thankful to have a message of hope for those grieving, I know I won’t have the opportunity to follow-up with most of those assembled and can only pray that God will send someone else into each of those lives to water the seed planted that day. But I’m also painfully aware of the generational decline of the “churched” in the United States.
Every generation tends to drift away from church in their early 20’s, but historically, most of those who grew up connected with a congregation tended to come back after having children. But this is less true of each successive American generation, which means as the population of the planet (and North Ridgeville) grows, they’re growing up without Jesus.
But the reason for empty pews is no mystery. The research is in, and the answer is definitive. The biggest reason they’re not attending is because they want to get closer to God. No, that’s not a typo. People want to actually grow in their faith and see the growth, and they want to know whether it affects their lives today instead of just after they die. The church wasn’t providing those answers, so they gave up and left. I don’t blame them.
But this is great news, because that means we can reverse the trend, and our work in progress specifically meets those needs. It means not just learning from Jesus, but learning to follow Him. It means learning how to make disciples of all nations the way Jesus did: through mentoring, not classrooms. It means generations learning from each other as the Body of Christ, those with more experience training those with less. It means we take a slow cooker approach instead of microwaving discipleship, even though it’s going to take longer to train mentors through an apprenticeship process instead of just throwing someone into a position without knowing what they’re doing.
At other churches that have used similar models, the process takes 3-5 years to get going full-speed (Jesus took 3 years, but He’s God.), but like a fine wine, rushing the process will spoil it, so we need to avoid that temptation. But once fully implemented, this process will solve almost every problem this congregation faces (the same problems most others face), but should it really surprise us that having Jesus’ priorities and methods would not only solve most of our problems but also reverse the negative trends in our community? As one member asked me recently, “Why didn’t we start this a long time ago?”