Today’s Star Tribune article highlighting the trend of church doors closing and mainline denominations declining is sadly not surprising to a leadership consultant to churches. While there are a number of great things still happening in these aging congregations from soup kitchens to care for widows and the elderly, a glaring reality is that the congregations are in fact aging. The average member has been a supporter for over a decade. New people don’t stick out like a sore thumb for they haven’t walked in the doors in years. With an inability to reach new people with the Good News of Jesus, the doors will inevitably close as members lives come to an end this side of heaven. But it doesn’t have to end this way for mature churches if a few cultural changes are heeded.
Many churches and denominations sight the lack of finances and increasingly expensive old buildings as the reason to consolidate with other churches, limit open hours, and even close their doors indefinitely. But it is estimated that Minnesotans are in fact incredibly generous with their money. According to the Attorney General’s website, Minnesotans donate more than $4 billion a year to charitable organizations. So, it’s not from lack of generosity that churches are closing, rather from people feeling that other organizations meet their needs better. People are very willing to give their time and money to that which changes their lives and makes a difference to what’s important to them. Perhaps this is evidence that churches aren’t connecting with people’s felt needs today?
Seeing as generosity is not an issue in Minnesota (though it ultimately does come down to a lack of finances for most churches) the lack of attendees in many churches is the obvious problem. Many of the churches closing have been around for over a century. Sadly, though the culture around them has changed drastically, little has changed internally since the doors first opened. When there are shifts in societal culture, there are elements that often accompany the change: language, attire, and view of power to name a few. The consequences of ignoring these changes eventually mean permanently closing doors for churches.
When it comes to language, and communication in general, we’re talking about one of the very fabrics of societies. What we say and how we say it can open doors or slam them shut in a matter of seconds. If what we say and how we say it doesn’t exude an air of inclusivity, new people will not only not feel welcomed, they’ll feel entirely unwelcome. Culturally relevant language and communication techniques must be used if any church wants to engage new people with the Gospel. This goes for new church plants too. For example, I’m in awe of how many pastors of newer churches solely use masculine rhetoric from how the church’s theology is described on their websites to the stories included in their sermons. It’s as if the only people they are trying to reach is men who look, act, and sound just like them. In addition to every woman I know, I know more men than not who are completely turned away by this odd church culture phenom. 2,000 years ago, Jesus even used examples that women could easily relate to in his stories. The point is, the harder people have to work to make what we say connect with who they are where they are, the less likely we will be in reaching them with an unfamiliar Gospel.
When it comes to attire, many people are unaware of how loudly it speaks to others about how approachable or not they are. When grown and living out His vocational ministry, Jesus so integrated Himself into the local worldly culture of Israel that He was critiqued for just being a regular guy from their neighborhood (Matthew 13:53-57). We too need to start being mistaken for “a regular.” The first time I traveled to East Africa, I learned that women wore skirts, always. As a 20-year-old, I never wore skirts. But, I wanted to be taken seriously at my new university and I wanted to represent my home church well while visiting our sister congregation. So, I gladly wore skirts every day and covered my shoulders, because that’s just what a woman in East Africa did. I wasn’t pretending to be someone I wasn’t; I was simply honoring a culture other than my own in which God had called me to live and minister.
Jesus too dressed just like everyone else and yet, didn’t compromise His identity by doing so. By becoming just like “one of them,” He became approachable, relatable, and gave people one less reason to tune Him out. What if God had chosen to continue wearing heavenly garments while living on earth? I don’t even know what these are, they could be robes but what if they’re nothing? I mean, Adam and Eve originally wore nothing, and all was good… God, however, chose not to give people one more reason to not listen by appearing so otherworldly and out of touch. As the culture changes around us, we need to check ourselves and make sure we too remain approachable. We need to ensure that our personal preferences for tradition aren’t creating more boundaries between others and God. This isn’t to say that we need to become someone we’re not, but it is to say that we need to be true to who we are and simultaneously become just like one of “them.” When we fail to do this, who we are, and Who we represent, are seen as dismissible, irrelevant, and unnecessary.
Beyond language and attire, view of power is another cultural element that, at least in the U.S., has shifted dramatically over the past century of which many church leaders seem completely unaware. Not only is authoritarian power distrusted by most people under 50 in the U.S., they expect to be able to share power at that. Imagining people who collaborate on a daily basis to then come to our churches and have to jump through hoops to serve coffee save become an elder (if they’re the right gender), is a massive oversight in so many churches. As followers of Jesus, who not only shared His power with those who followed Him during His earthly ministry but also served them, may we learn to follow suit lest we alienate even those actually seeking to know God.
While new churches will ever be needed to reach everyone with the Good News of Jesus Christ, they aren’t necessary for replacing old ones. Shifts in societal culture don’t precipitate church doors closing; lack of appropriate culture change in churches does.