Since last October, I have been teaching the oldest mixed adult class in our Sunday school.  The class varies in age, from people in their mid to late 70’s, up to the oldest member, a gentleman who will turn 100 this August.  I started “filling in” when the teacher, a former church staff member who also served as a pastor in his younger days, decided it was time to step down.  This morning, he and I had a conversation of sorts related to the church’s “heyday,” a period of time during the late 1960’s, and through the 70’s into the early 80’s, when Sunday school and worship attendance peaked. 

We’ve had this conversation before, but he loves to relive those days, so I listen patiently as he recalls having to find nooks and crannies for classes to meet in our sprawling building.  Over 800 in attendance regularly, chairs set up in the aisles of the sanctuary to make room for worshippers, and some renovations and additions to the building gave way to a slow, steady decline.  Now, 250 in Sunday school is the norm, 300 in worship is a high day, and our two older educational buildings and the old sanctuary have been converted for other uses, one leased as office space for another ministry.  In addition to that, during that same stretch of time, there were four other Southern Baptist congregations in the general area that were running well over 500 in attendance as well, and some smaller ones in the 250-500 range, eight churches altogether in a three zip code area.  Today, we are the largest of the eight, and at least three of the others have dwindled down to well under 50 mostly elderly churches, two disbanded, one relocated, another merged.  So where did all those people go?  I asked that question today.

When all of those churches were thriving, the folks who are in my Sunday school class were in their 40’s and 50’s.  Many of those who are still with us are those who have retired, held on to their homes as the values went up, and still live in the neighborhood.  Many of them have died, or moved out of the area.  Some moved to join a megachurch that relocated nearby in the mid-70’s.  That accounts for the decline. 

But the neighborhood, because of its location and proximity to downtown, is thriving again.  Property values are soaring as older Gen X’ers and baby boomers move back in to get away from hour long, and in some cases, 90 minute commutes.  Multi-family units are springing up rapidly just South of our location, full of young professionals.  The median family incomes and housing values around us are way up.  But the church membership in the area, even with a megachurch just outside the immediate neighborhood, is not anywhere near what it once was.  The few mainline denominational churches left are all small, mostly elderly congregations, and the neighborhood is scattered with buildings that once served churches, but are now being used for other purposes, or have been abandoned.  If you put all the Baptist churches in the area together, they would number fewer people than our church had alone in the 70’s, and two thirds of the people would be past 60 years of age.   Clearly, Houston is no longer the buckle of the Bible belt. 

The challenge now is how to reach this growing unchurched population.  Many of the people I run into are second generation unchurched, and many of them come from cultural backgrounds that are not familiar with Christianity.  Not only that, but it seems that being Baptist carries with it a stigma that makes people less likely to want to consider examining the Christian faith through that particular lens.  Though we are on a major street, near the intersection of a busy exit off of one of Houston’s busiest freeways, our visibility no longer generates the automatic traffic it once did. 

We’ve had minimal success with some kinds of approaches, the most successful of which has been a small group ministry.  Even that, in some cases, has become more of an inward development than an outreach strategy.  It has helped us assimilate new members who have joined from other churches, by transfer of membership.  But it hasn’t been highly effective in reaching in to the unchurched, and making effective presentations of the gospel.  And the more I read, and attend training events and seminars, the more I realize there really isn’t a segment of the church in America that is highly successful at reaching into unchurched populations.  We are caught up in our programs and approaches.  But we are missing something.

 

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

13 responses

  1. Tim Dahl says:

    I think we need to find that 1% of churches that are actually growing thru conversions, and see what they are doing. From what I’ve seen, they don’t grow thru any program. Programs are particularly disdained. However, they do seem to be able to mobilize people in the pew fairly well. Again, not to get them into a program, but seemingly to unleash them upon the community. So, people of Northwood, Fellowship (Grapevine), Mosaic, Saddleback, etc. have a culture of people that share Christ with others around them in their society. They just tell their story…

    On top of that, they get them involved in all sorts of things. Though I’m sure they have people that serve on committees/task groups/teams, I don’t think that is the main push. Instead, they get people involved in small groups (like you do), into a plethora of missions opportunities (both instate and international), and they train them to be ministers wherever they are. Their people are investing themselves in their community, which seems to draw non-believers to them, to some extent.

    Lets face it, non-believers just don’t randomly walk into church as they once did… Well, lets be honest, they didn’t before. Our culture, back 50 years ago, was biased for/towards the church. If you wanted to have a successful business, then you went to First Church of your city. If you wanted a social life, then you went to First Church of your area. That just isn’t true any more. It isn’t that society is against us (regardless of what the religious right says), but instead they just don’t care about us. We are totally benign in their sight. We are a non-issue. If they just leave us alone, we’ll kill ourselves off.

    Tim

  2. Colby says:

    Though I was raised in a Baptist church, the only reason I continue to be involved in one is a) the small group in which I am involved, connected to the church, meeting on Thursday night, has several “unchurched” seekers in it and b) through the church I am deeply involved in a meaningful, hands on missions experience every year.
    The “contemporary” worship service does have some appeal for me, since we sing songs of praise to God, and not just songs about God, or just hymns that are “rich in theology” which isn’t authentic worship as far as I am concerned. But that’s far less important than the direct involvement.
    Don’t overlook or minimize the perceptions that younger people, and in particular younger, unchurched people, have about Baptists. We are less highly thought of than just about any other Christian denomination, considerably less highly thought of. We have a real perception and image problem. At the university I attended, a large state school in a Texas college town, Baptist efforts to get students into church were hooted at and ridiculed. I once heard the statement, “I wouldn’t go to a Baptist church if they had a dance and the beer was free.” Yes, it is that bad.

  3. Tim Dahl says:

    “I once heard the statement, ‘I wouldn’t go to a Baptist church if they had a dance and the beer was free.’ Yes, it is that bad.”

    Well, I guess that one evangelistic outreach I was thinking about won’t work. I need to call off the beer truck… :(

    All kidding aside, after so many years of shooting ourselves in the foot, I’m not sure we have anything left to stand on.

    Tim

  4. Ellis Orozco says:

    Lee:

    You have described many churches in Texas. I appreciate your sincere desire to reach the world around you.

    What is the cultural/ethnic makeup of your church’s zip code? If it’s vastly different than what you currently have in your church, then you’re in big trouble.

    What I mean is this: Most churches start making the necessary changes about 10-20 years too late. Your church needed to start making some radical changes when it sank to about 500 in SS. At that point it was still relatively able to maintain the full campus and was probably still attracting some younger families. If they were not willing to make the changes at that point, or were uninformed of the necessary changes … then, that’s why they find themselves in the situation they are in. It’s a sad state, and unfortunatley, very common.

    If the folks in your church look nothing like the community around your church … you will never get the community to come inside your doors. They just won’t do it. It’s not that your folks are unkind or unwelcoming (I’m sure they’re wonderful) … it’s just too different.

    You can do all kinds of community outreach and emphasis on “getting out there and winning people to the Lord,” but if there’s nothing relevant for them to come to in worship and Bible Study, then you’ll never get them into a healthy, growing situation within the life of the church.

    Now … everything Tim said is right on target. The problem is that the churches he mentioned had the DNA of cultural relevancy built into them from day one. AND they have not stopped changing. Once a church stops changing … it’s on its way to death. Willowcreek, by the way, is starting realize that while they’re still very viable!

    I’m not trying to be rude to the people in your church. I’m sure they are wonderful Christian people who truly want to reach out to others. It’s just that neighborhoods are changing rapidly. It’s hard to keep up. Most churches just wind up trying to maintain their facility. They’re planting flowers all around their coffin.

    If you can’t get people into your church (and if you have the name Baptist on the front, and your platform personnel look nothing like the community, and most in the pew have white hair and blue eyes, and your music is piano driven … you will NOT get them to come in) … then the best you can do is to innovate around the existing structures.

    Start churches that will reach the community. Let them use your facility for free (and at the prime hours). Start off-campus small groups that worship at a satellite location, with a completely different feel from your church. Start a language-specific congregation. I’m sure you can think of other ideas …

    With these new works or initiatives build several things into the DNA: 1. Every member is a missionary, on mission for God everywhere they go; 2. Change is happening everywhere and the church is no exception. There will be changes practically every Sunday … get over it; 3. The most important language is the language that the culture speaks. Therefore, that’s the language we will speak; 4. If you join this church God will probably call you to sell everything you have and follow him (most likely to a third-world country, because that’s where the need is the greatest).

    My church is where your church was 20 years ago. Vibrant and energetic and viable … and on the way to death … if we are not willing to make the necessary changes to reach the culture around us. Pray for us … I’m praying for you.

    blessings,
    ellis

  5. Lee says:

    Our church is really not the typical Baptist congregation you find in most places in this city, we’re not a predominantly gray head, anglo, “piano driven” congregation. (I like that description, and I’ll use it some day) There is really no predominant age group in the church, though the 20 to 30 year old group is small, we are pretty much in balance from 30 on up, and we are also only about 50% anglo, 40% hispanic and 10% Asian and African American which is what the neighborhood around us looks like. We’ve made some important changes, particularly by adding small groups and contemporary worship. We really need to get that sense of being on mission into our DNA. And I would also say we need a touch of the Holy Spirit’s fire.

    I’ve run into a lot of people, from among the droves of Gen-X and baby boomers who are moving into the neighborhood (paying upwards of half a million for a medium sized home, just because it is in a historic district) who would be among those Colby describes as not interested in going to a Baptist church even if we had a dance and the beer was free. But at the moment, not identifying as a Baptist congregation is out of the question. So we are going to have to reach them in other ways. Our building is in use seven days a week, and we probably have more than 1,000 people come to various activities there, from Jazzercize classes to our Early Learning Center to group meetings. That’s the place to start.

    I think we have to be open to change, but not just for the sake of change. I think we really have to be set on fire by the Spirit and develop an urgency to reach lost people.

  6. Ellis Orozco says:

    Lee:

    Wow. Sounds to me like ya’ll are already miles ahead of most Baptist churches in your context. That’s awesome.

    I’ve read all the latest on emergent church, and the “shaping of things to come,” etc. and there’s some great thing to learn from the emerging thinkers. I especially resonate with the idea of incarnational ministry.

    However, I’m convinced that at some point we have to get them integrated into the life of a worshipping and discipling community. That community doesn’t have to be traditional and it doesn’t have to be large … but, it does have to be worshipping and discipling (and intentional about that). My contention is that the best bet for that is still the church. Especially one that is willing to make the changes your church has made.

    Now … how to reach the Gen-Xers and Baby boomers that are moving into the pricy, historic district near your church … that’s a question for those far more qualified and experienced than I. I really can’t help you there. I’ve always been better at reaching the poor.

    You’ve hit on the two most important things: the fire of the Spirit, and the hearts of the people. I would only add … the vision of the leadership.

    But it sounds to me like you’ve got all that … you’re headed in the right direction. Sometimes it just takes longer than what we expect or want …
    I’m praying for you today …

    blessings,
    ellis

  7. tpylant says:

    The idea of leading a church to change at the right time is important. Once a church looses that window of opportunity, it is simply too late. Judging when the window is beginning to close is the art of leadership. But the previous statement that a church can be vibrant and on the way to death at the same time is very true. Convincing a congregation that what they are doing now will not be effective 5 years from now is hard work. Many pastors have lost their job trying (and I hope to not add to their numbers). But the reality is that if we keep doing what we are doing then we will keep getting what we are getting. If we want a different output, then we need a different input.

    But, the bottom line is that we need a fresh move of the Spirit of God. I am about finished with trying to put makeup on the pig. The gospel is what the gospel is. Trying to attract the lost with other stuff and then “bait and switch” with the gospel just has not worked. The redemptive gospel is the good news that our society, as a whole, simply does not want. Unless the Lord moves again in the hearts of humanity, we may never see times of refreshing from the Lord.

    Holy Spirit, breath on me (us)…

    Todd Pylant

  8. Sam Swart says:

    Lee,

    The housing trend in your churches’ neighborhood is to tear down the 70 year-old houses and build new and bigger. Original businesses and restaurants struggle to hang on with their original customer base while being supplanted by big chains or trendy boutiques. Is your church a part of the old fabric of the neighborhood that is disappearing? Would a new church building ‘franchised’ by one of the big successful congregations on your site be a more successful model? I think the answer is yes and I find that discouraging.

    Loyalty to denomination brands may be in decline, but loyalty to successful churches is growing and leading to a new model for church expansion. It seems a church is either ‘it’ or it’s not. Success just seems to draw folks in regardless of the product offered. Americans choose churches like we choose housing, shoes and hamburgers.

    I don’t have any answers, because I believe church growth is so tied to the American consumer mindset that all the turn around tactics we tout are little more than trading one leaky bucket for another as we continue to bail out the boat.

    This is not to say I don’t have hope. There is hope aplenty for followers of Christ. Our vehicles for transmitting the gospel may falter, but God will always provide new means. I pray for wisdom to recognize them.

    Sam

  9. Steve Austin says:

    The best-growing churches in my town have no reputation for power struggles and don’t seem to have contests for control. The ones that had public disputes fifteen years ago are apparently still paying for it reputationally.

    My old gray-hair country church is about fifteen funerals from going away/merging.

  10. Lee says:

    Sam,
    You are right about the way we choose churches, and the consumer mentality. We can’t compete with the franchise congregations. We are an interesting blend, made up partly of the fabric of the old neighborhood, and partly of that which is moving in. Most of our new members come from one of the two big Baptist “franchises” in town, or the House of Osteen. So in the assimilation and discipleship process, we have to retrain.

    Todd,
    I’ve been doing discipleship, mobilization, assimilation and evangelism ministries for two years, and there’s probably not a program or method that I haven’t at least read up on in that period of time. But I have come to the conclusion that imitation isn’t what we need. We need to be open to a movement of the Holy Spirit, and that is what we need to pray for, and seek after. We need to be open to it, not afraid of it, and let God have his way. Our worship needs to be shaken, and lit on fire.

  11. Jack Matthews says:

    Ah, here in the Baptist “Capital” the landscape is also dotted with dozens of Baptist churches that have become somewhat disconnected from their geography, and are aging and declining in number, and there seems to be no real fix.
    Near my house is a congregation once running upwards of 1000 in Sunday school. About a decade ago, their pastor of 35 years, a hard core traditionalist, retired, and the church slumped, down to something like 200 or less. Their “solution” has been to lease the major part of their facility, including their 1,000 seat sanctuary, to a gen-x type, non-denominational church with a 30 year old pastor who preaches with his shirt tail untucked. They draw close to 1,000 in two services on Sunday. I know several people who go there, including my administrative assistant. They attract a lot of young people and young families, but as far as being evangelistic goes, they are not winning large numbers of people to Christ. It is the consumer mentality all over again, it’s about how “hip” and “trendy” they are, and the attraction of that image to people between 25 and 45. Walk through the front door and there’s an 800 square foot coffee bar on the left, just outside the worship area. It’s the package, and it almost seems designed to attract a Christian crowd. In fact, in the two or three times I’ve worshipped there, I ran into several people I used to go to church with at [the big, traditional, downtown Baptist church older than all the other Baptist churches in town].

  12. Ken Hall says:

    Lee,

    Next week Glen Schmucker is going to be a guest blogger on my blog about the things that happened at Cliff Temple Church in Dallas. He recently resigned and has a unique perspective about churches in transition. I think he has a word for all of us in dealing with helping churches reach the communities that have changed.

  13. Lee says:

    Thanks, Ken. I’ll be looking forward to reading that.