How can you avoid scenarios like this in the future?
How can you avoid scenarios like this in the future? (Lightstock)

In 1964, Bob Dylan released his third studio album, The Times They Are A-Changin’.

As was typical of the music from the 1960s, political and cultural statements and protests were the norm. The times were changing. Some for the better (i.e., the civil rights movement.) Others, maybe not (i.e., the sexual revolution.) Nevertheless, songs such as this and others that gained popularity became themes for a generation in flux.

Churches changed as well over time. Some for the better and others … well, maybe not. Over the past few decades, we have seen the advent of the church growth movement, the growth of parachurch organizations, the birth and subsequent death (well, basically) of the emergent church, the focus on being seeker-sensitive, the development of labels such as “traditional” and “contemporary” when it comes to worship styles (which by their nature are labels that mean different things to different people) and categorical shifts in emphasis in areas such as youth ministry, family ministry, men’s and women’s ministries, and the like.

There are always those voices that speak of needed adjustments in church practice as culture changes. Some have wrongly attributed these changes to keeping the message “relevant.” That’s a misnomer. The gospel is always relevant and always will be. The local church, however, that has been accused of sliding into irrelevancy often is just a victim of becoming an inwardly focused organization that has forsaken the missional commands of the New Testament.

We Have to Do Something

Unfortunately, many churches realize they are on life support when it’s too late. Of course, with God, it’s never too late. I get that. However, I have been in numerous churches over the years that are full of nice, loving people who have forgotten their mission. They gather, listen to sermons, go to Sunday school, and worship through giving and singing while the community surrounding them really doesn’t even notice they exist.

Then, as if finally awakened from a deep sleep, they acknowledge they have had far more funerals in their building recently than baptisms and begin to see the writing on the wall. Something has to be done.

In some cases, these well-meaning believers hire a young pastor or maybe an associate pastor with the instructions to reach “those people out there.” It’s a noble gesture, but often it doesn’t match true expectations. While the new pastor may have the greatest intentions to reach the community, and with the backing of those who called him to do just that, he often discovers the message given and the actual expectations are different.

While the instructions were to “reach those people out there,” the actual, nonverbal instructions were “reach those people, but don’t force us to change anything in here.”

I have talked with numerous young ministers who have experienced this very thing. In most cases, they don’t last in these churches. In the most severe cases, they find themselves out of ministry fully.

Reaching Millennials

Generational differences are real, and as the times change, they become more and more evident. Many church leaders track these trends, but others discover them naturally as one generation matures and the next steps into leadership roles. A church that only reaches an older generation will have a room full of wisdom and potentially no debt, but it will not be as effective in reaching younger people in the community.

Conversely, a church that only reaches Millennials will have a lot of energy and will “like” ministries and movements that address social issues such as trafficking and justice, but it will find it difficult to finish any significant task and may discover the funding lacking for all areas.

I’m not throwing stones. I’m simply stating facts. The Pew Research Center, as well as other surveying groups, has affirmed that young people (ages 18-29) are less religiously affiliated than any other generation in our nation. Unfortunately, the trend is that this number will continue to decline. The statistics mirror that which has been happening in Europe for decades. The times, they are a-changin’, it seems.

So, how does a church that desires to “be all things to all people” so that we may reach some for the gospel do this? How does an established church with almost a century of history adjust processes and programming in order to remain effective ambassadors for Christ in this culture? The answer may seem simple.

It may even sound like a cliche, but when lived out fully, it is not. It is the gospel in action. Regardless of generational makeup or church culture, living missionally is the key. It leads to viewing the community surrounding one’s church as the mission field. This inevitably leads those within the church to begin living as missionaries. Perhaps this is what God meant when He called us His ambassadors.

Living missionally removes the typical church marketing strategies that intend to sell a program or ministry to a community that doesn’t want it or think they need it. No longer are church members bragging about their great church or the ministries offered. Here’s a news flash: Lost people aren’t thinking about the church and therefore do not view what the church has to offer as something they need, much less want.

Living missionally leads Christ-followers to love their neighbors and to offer that which they do need—the Good News of Jesus Christ. The gospel! That changes everything.

Avoiding the Tsunami

I have seen a number of local churches in our city take steps to avoid the coming tsunami. These churches are different from the ones described above in one very significant way. These senior saints desire to see those in their changing community reached and are willing to sacrifice “their” church for the sake of the kingdom. It’s an amazing transition.

By sacrificing the concept of it being “their” church, they are affirming the reality that they are God’s church and that the mandate given by Christ in the Great Commission is as valid today as ever. These “traditional” churches with a majority of older members are as relevant, and perhaps even more so, as any “contemporary” church in the community.

Know the Times

In reading Pastor Mark Driscoll’s latest book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future? some points really struck me. It is estimated that one quarter of unmarried women between the ages of 29 and 39 are currently living with a partner and that about half have lived at some time with an unmarried partner.

Over half of first marriages are now preceded by cohabitation. More than 60 percent of high schoolers “agree” or “strongly agree” that cohabitation before marriage is a good idea.

Churches that market themselves as a great place for the entire family, with service times on Sunday morning that work for young families, a great kids’ program, rocking student ministry, family camps and daytime Bible studies for stay-at-home moms, are inadvertently telling the majority of Americans—singles—they are not welcome and to stay away.

These points and many others from various sources all echo that which we know to be true—the Western church is in trouble. In many cases, it is on life support, surviving on the tithes and attendance of an older generation while lamenting the fact that reaching the young, uncommitted “Nones” is not easy.

It’s Not Easy

God has promised that His church would prevail. However, He never promised that the local gathering on the corner that meets in a building with the name “church” on it would always be around. In fact, according to history, every local fellowship has a shelf life. You don’t see anyone talking about the current work of the great church in Corinth or Ephesus any longer, do you?

So, while we’re here, we are called to honor God, spread the gospel and do whatever it takes to be His uncompromising ambassadors in the community in which He has placed us. That focus and appropriate action will help us avoid the coming tsunami.

It must be less about “our” church and more about His.

David Tarkington is the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Orange Park, Fla. He has served on the pastoral staff since January 1994. Beginning in 2005, David began serving as the senior pastor.

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