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.