There is an old story told of how you can throw a frog into a kettle of hot water and it will immediately jump out, but if you put that same frog into a kettle of cool water and turn up the heat slowly the frog won’t notice anything is wrong until it’s too late. Demographic problems in many churches work the same way. These problems are decades in the making and tick harmlessly away for years until it’s too late and the church is doomed – just another victim of a demographic time-bomb.
Far too often I have spoken to churches that have no one left under the age of 60 and only now think it might be a good idea to reach young people. Quite frankly, if your “young people” are in their 60’s then your church is past the point of no return. The only thing left for these churches to do is to draw up a will and give their building and assets to a young church plant. The alternative is to squander these resources and see another house of the Lord turned into a condo, night-club, or mosque. The shame is that these churches could have survived if they had acted 20 years ago when they still had time.
I’ve seen similar problems in the dying small farming towns of the Great Plains. For the past 150 years, farms have been getting bigger and bigger, but requiring fewer and fewer people to work them. There has been a steady trend for over a century and a half of people leaving the homestead and moving into the city. Oddly enough, most of these towns never see the end coming until it’s too late and the local school is closed. Once that happens the town has no chance of surviving – no family is going to move to a town with no school. Tragically, it is only when the school is closing that people leap to action to try to save their town – far too late to attract any business that will bring jobs and people to keep the town alive. However, if they had acted 20 years earlier when they first noticed the population starting to decline their town would not be a ghost town today.
I challenge you to take a hard look at your church’s demographic profile. You may have lots of teenagers, but do you have any children? If you have children, how does the nursery look? A quiet nursery is a time-bomb that will eventually kill your church.
When I came to my last congregation they were sitting on a similar time-bomb. While the seats were full and there were a large number of teenagers, the nursery had become quite spacious. 87% of the adults were over the age of 40. As it turns out, the church started bleeding 19 year olds back in the late 80’s. Because it was a fairly big church, a handful of missing teenagers was beneath anyone’s notice. By the late 90’s they had lost 75% of their 20-somethings (keep in mind the Black Death only took 33% of the population). While the nursery was still full this wasn’t going to last. By the time the late 2000’s came around the nursery was feeling pretty roomy and there was only a small remnant left under the age of 40. Even at this point, because the church was still full, many people could not see the problem or our desperate need to take decisive action. Had we not done so the church would have slowly grown older still to eventually reach the dreaded point of no return.
What is it like in your church? If your funerals are more common than your baby dedications or christenings then you are in trouble. No matter how full the seats are today, they won’t be that way tomorrow. If you have more children than seniors your church has a future, if not then your future is in jeopardy. The longer the delay, the more radical the steps you must take and the more difficult it will be to reverse this trend.
Of course, age is not the only demographic time-bomb that can kill your church. Language and ethnicity will do the job just as well. This is a major problem in larger cities where the demographic profile of the neighbourhood has changed and the church is reduced to an ethnic enclave unable to reach its own neighbourhood and unable to bring new people in from the suburbs. If you notice a new group of people moving into the neighbourhood then do what ever you can as soon as you can to reach them. If they speak a different language then you will have to invest in a missionary church planter – preferably one of their own – to start a second service. If you act while you have time then your church’s future may be bright and victorious, if not the bomb will go off and there won’t be a future for your church.