I’ve been turning a theory about church life over in my head recently, so I thought it might be time to stop boring Penny with my random speculations and to commence getting some of these ideas down on (virtual) paper.
My theory suggests that two models of successful churches exist. For want of better terminology, I’m going to call them the country church and the city church, although such a division is far too simplistic. In reality, the distinction between these two churches is the territory from which they can reasonably draw their flock.
The country church, or virtually any church before everybody in the country had two cars or a mass transit system, could look at the map and know roughly where their members might come from. In those days, my church, First Baptist Church of Oak Grove (MO), would draw people from Oak Grove and the surrounding farms. Someone living where I live, some 5 miles from FBC Oak Grove, would have almost certainly opted to attend FBC Bates City at a distance of 2.5 miles. The difference between 2.5 and 5 is negligible in a car today, even as we negotiate part of the trip on gravel, but it would have been more significant in a day when the county roads were an adventure, when tire failures were far more common, and horse power referred to a mode of transportation that ate hay. In that day, the day of the country church, the pastors of Oak Grove and Bates City could be fairly clear about who their potential flock comprised and where they lived. Of course there were competing congregations in the towns–at least in Oak Grove–but let’s not overly complicate matters.
In short, in the day of the country church, I could look at Oak Grove, MO and know who I might reasonably ask to church. I could know all the kids in the school. I could keep track of who was moving in and out of town, something that happened with far less frequency than today.
If I were a church leader in the country church age, I could reasonably measure the effectiveness of my coverage of the turf. Let’s say that there were 500 potential church members. I might see 350 of them walk in the door with some regularity. I could know the remaining 150. Some might be prospects for the church. Others might be incredibly hostile, the sort of people it would take an act of God to get over the threshold. If I could move that 350 number up to 375, then I would be doing well. If I dropped to 325, then I’d have to ask how effectively I was serving the town.
In such a church, I could feel very good about a sort of maintenance approach to church life. I could run Sunday School classes that taught the faithful what they needed to know, doing for this generation what we did for the last generation. With less mobility in that day, churches tended to have many more multi-generational families; therefore, a certain amount of tradition could be seen not as old-fashioned, but as something appreciated by grandma. The concerns of the seniors wouldn’t be a matter of just being caring; they would be something that struck home–literally. Spending on the youth would be spending on our nieces, nephews, grandkids, and so forth.
In all but the most isolated places, the age of the country church has come to an end. Living between Oak Grove and Bates City, with easy access to I-70, I could reasonably attend church in Ottawa or Higginsville (to the east) or Grain Valley or Blue Springs (to the west). If I were to extend my potential-church-radius out to a thirty-minute drive, my options would grow enormously. Literally scores of potential churches would fall into that circle without even exploring other denominations. So what does that mean?
If the attendance at FBC Oak Grove were to fall by 25 on average, what could we conclude? Have we messed up and driven people away? Did they find themselves not driven away but attracted to somewhere else? Did they move away from town, away from this church, or away from God? It’s hard to tell. Today, it’s much harder to tell, without doing a completely implausible survey, how we’re doing when anyone and everyone could be strapping into the car on Sunday morning to drive all over the area.
Today, I would argue, we cannot survive with a maintenance-style church. We must be concerned to attract and retain an ever-shifting, increasingly diverse population. This is not a call for the church to pander to the “perceived needs” of a fickle generation. We don’t have to change worship formats in the way that radio stations will change their programming formats whenever the ratings dip slightly. On the other hand, we cannot simply do what we’ve always done hoping that all will be well. It’s pretty hard to make disciples when you don’t reach the people within your community. Perhaps even the country church could not do that, but the urgency seems much greater today.
What does this mean for the church today? I believe that every aspect of church life should have outreach, inclusion, and retention in mind. We must recognize that we are not the only game in town. Granted some people might leave a church and drive to the next town for a facile reason: the music is better or the youth pastor better looking. Others, however, will leave because they feel there’s more going on, that the new church is on the move. Some will never come into the church if it’s not welcoming. Some won’t stay when they cannot get plugged in. Again, there are many, many voices calling for the attention that church once came near to monopolizing.
If anyone from FBC Oak Grove should happen to read this, let me say that I feel we should receive mixed grades on this exam, and the church I last attended sometimes privileged numbers over actual discipleship. I’m not an uncritical devotee of the latest church-growth fad.
What I would suggest is that any activity within any church that only attracts the same people today that it attracted at this time last year deserves some real scrutiny. No children’s activity can be tolerated that could be mistaken for child care–maybe not even actual child care. No music activity can be tolerated that puts music above ministry and worship. No senior adult activity is worthwhile if it simply gives the seniors “something to do.”
Jesus called Christians to be salt and light to the world. We live in a brightly lit, strongly seasoned culture; thus we must be even saltier and even brighter. No one said that baptizing and making disciples would be easy, but then He who called us to that task also promised to be with us to the end of the age.