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Apr  2016 19
Death Tsunami Threatens Church

Sometimes our ability to hang onto a version of “reality” despite contrary evidence is deeply frustrating. In my more rational moments, it is good that I remember “our” includes me.

I am sure my blinders frustrate others. When I realize I have been looking at a situation or relationship through a fantasy, I also frustrate myself.

At a recent conference of regional church leaders, I was hearing relatively gentle conversations about the changes that need to be made in congregational life.

For example, we need to get even more creative about education and paths to ordination for clergy leaders who will not attend seminary. We need to think about models of church that don’t necessarily include buildings the way we’ve designed them in recent decades.

I’ve been overhearing and participating in such conversations all of my professional life for the last 23 years.

But I had a difficult time focusing on those conversations because I’ve read credible reports of the asteroid that is going to hit the old mainline white Protestant churches directly. That it will hit is certain. Its impact will be severe. It is a demographic reality.

That asteroid is what Lovett Weems and others have named “the death tsunami.”

Beginning in 2019 and for the next 30 years, the death rate in the U.S. population will rise to the highest level the nation has experienced in decades (U.S. Census report).

The death tsunami will include the last of the World War II generation and a goodly portion of my own Baby Boomer cohort.

With today’s average age in mainline churches at about 60, with many of the largest financial contributors to those congregations in their upper 60s, their 70s, and their 80s, and with such different church-going patterns among the thinner younger generations, there is no doubt that the “death tsunami” will powerfully disrupt an entire way of doing church.

[I need to note that the effects will be felt far less in many larger evangelical congregations where the average age is one to two decades younger.]

To mix metaphors: the death tsunami is the asteroid that will hit the church. We can’t avoid it, but what do we do to prepare for it?

In my opinion, there really only two options for existing congregations, depending on where that congregation is in its lifecycle:

Option #1: Die with dignity.

Option #2: Change as much as you can as intentionally as you can before the asteroid hits.

Option #1: There are congregations that will not have a future. Massive demographic changes. Leadership deficits. Unproductive conflict. Homogeneity and coziness that turned a church into a club. Some combination of these factors.

Whatever the reason, there are churches where a hospice strategy is correct. Help them live with dignity until it is time to pass on, and make good decisions about their assets.

Option #2: For all existing congregations that might have a future, that have the people and the money and the leadership necessary to give them a chance. There must be a mighty effort to do as much proactive change work as possible, without anxiety, as soon as possible.

I know I am preaching to the leadership choir on this point; I simply want to encourage you all to keep at it. Change work is really, really hard.

Even the most emotionally mature individuals sponge up the anxiety of anxious times and systems.

Finding and maintaining the sweet spot between strategic urgency and lizard-brain panic is really hard; God and the people I serve know I have not managed to keep the seminary “in the zone” for the last seven years.

Resist the temptation to be “chaplains of the Now.”

Yes, I know in pastoral work there is a great deal of time attending matters of daily living: birth, death, illness, raising families, marriage, divorce, betrayal, moving, losing and finding jobs, forgiveness and reconciliation, finding one’s purpose, losing one’s purpose, coming home—all the stuff of “The Journey.”

But being chaplains for the life journeys of the persons who are already there is, within a rapidly changing cultural context, a strategy that will kill any congregation.

I remain indebted to the insight of the late Bill Cull, one of my senior pastor mentors, who said, “You always have to keep one eye on the congregation that is and the other eye on the congregation that is yet to be.”

I would alter that remark today by saying we leaders need to convince a great number of eyes to attend to the congregation that is yet to be.

Coaxing and praying open the people and the systems of existing congregations to attract and be changed by persons who are not like them may be the most necessary and daunting work of existing congregations for the next 25 years.

The death tsunami is coming. The asteroid is on its way. This is no time for breaking the news gently; we’ve done that for decades. Harder choices are coming.

We in the mainline are in the beginning of a massive change. Bigger changes are on their way.

Let’s not take time to rearrange the furniture or remodel a room, figuratively speaking.

It is past time to join with leaders who are marshaling all the courage, grit, gumption, vision, data, theology, prayer, money, and people they can who envision life after the asteroid hits, and how best to use the time, energy, money, and attention we have.

Doing anything less is simply waiting to die.

Photo by:
Mimigu at English Wikipedia

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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