There is a stigma that an aging congregation is a dying congregation. If you were to ask a pastor if you want to go to an aging church with a building with a host of deferred maintenance, many would run in the other direction. Who would blame them? Ask yourself, is God done with the local church that has seen better days? If not, are you being called to a church that is seen as hopeless, but God sees as hope-filled?
I find myself shepherding a church just six months in that has declined 60.04% in worship attendance in the last 10 years and has had 17 straight years (66%) decline in giving. While I was not here to be a part of the decline, I am here now. While I can complain about nearly $1 million worth of deferred maintenance, what good would it do? The pastors and leadership before me did their best, patching the holes exposed by decline. Instead of seeing fault, my heart goes out to them. Instead of fearing the numbers, I embrace them, as God has called me to serve during a season of decision in the local church.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research shared in their study Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study, updated in 2023, that “…evident among Mainline Protestant churches, where nearly 50% of the average congregation is now over 65 years of age.” In the last three years, the decline of younger people has been dramatic…. the percentage of attendees under the age of 35 (all children, youth, and young adults) decreased from 37% in 2020, to 35% in 2021, and to 32% in 2023.” At this rate, the average church will have less than 25% under the age of 35 within the decade. So, if your local church has not aged, don’t worry, it is coming.
Rebound by Recommitting
As I reviewed the church grounds and financial situation when I arrived as the pastor, some suggested we should sell the property and downsize the church. While it was tempting and maybe the easiest thing to do, I remembered the church’s legacy—those who had sowed into the building campaign to purchase the land and then build the buildings. I remembered the lives saved and given over at the altars. I looked at the people who stayed throughout the decades of decline and felt I had to try. If not for God, at least for these people. Trying did not mean we would be successful, but it would mean we would give it our all. God called me not to help close the church but to help bring back the church from near death. The question that everyone was asking was, was the church worth saving?
In reading the 92-year history of the church, the short answer was yes; the long answer was we must recommit to God, the land, and the community in which we were planted. Recommitting is essential in saying to yourself and to the community we are not giving up on God or the community. The people who made up the church had to believe again that God could use them, us, to reach out to the community. The fact of the matter is hard choices had to be made, and it started with reclaiming the property for the Lord.
In the mid-1950s, the pastor had the vision to claim a whole city block for God’s work, and in 2008, just four years into the decline, the last piece of the city block was bought, thus completing God’s plan. So, after decades of decline, to sell now was not a choice for the remaining leaders or me, as we realized God had a plan, which it started by us, recommitting to his plan for the church set out over a half-century earlier.
Rebound by Reconnecting
When leading a church in decline, there is a tendency to lash out at others. At the community for not engaging the local church through visits. Members who left the church and gave up on God and the people who remained. Or even pastors who led during a season of decline because they should have done something. But what is the use? It will not change the facts or the circumstances in which the church finds itself today. So, instead of complaining about the past, begin to rebound from the past by reconnecting with God through prayer, small group focus, and engaging people over programs. Throughout scripture, leaders who faced opposition were seen praying. Why? Because prayer unlocks the power of God to unleash his influence upon the church. Prayer power activates the spiritual hearts of the people and reconnects the church back to the Word of God.
As the church activates the power of God through prayer, they become open to his desires for the local church. Through prayer, the remaining people must relinquish personal desires for God’s will. The hardest part of reconnecting is letting go. Small groups will become a vital gateway to rebounding by connecting with new and old members to engage the community inside the church. Using small groups as a reconnection tool creates a new sense of community and provides a way forward from decline.
While my local church is in the midst of rebounding from decline, I have fallen in love with the people I have and not those I wished I had. When I look around the church, I remember that God has used a small remnant of believers for generations to keep his church going strong, and so too for the aging church. While the world may decry growing older, I rejoice in the faithful congregation God has given me to walk alongside as their pastor.