Contemplating Demographics

Demographics is the study of population groups. Church planters are critically focused on demographics when selecting locations for a new church plant. I expect that they want to answer questions like, are there enough people in the neighborhood to sustain a church plant.

Why is it that churches once planted and doing OK – start to (and ultimately completely) ignore demographics. That is, until the numbers start to drop.

Why can’t church leaders continue to be focused on being proactive in the community where the church is located?

Why should churches care about demographics anyway? Lets start with that. In the “Great Commission”, Jesus Himself commanded the apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations in Jerusalem, Judea, and even to the ends of the Earth.” So Jerusalem is the immediate vicinity of the first church, and it is the first place they were commanded to make disciples (produce fruit). If I take this command to heart, then my first outreach should be in my direct physical community (outside the walls of the church). I think, in the communities that our church members live in.

So if I read this scripture, God Himself has commanded us to produce fruit by making disciples in our closest community – FIRST. What that says to me is this – if I spend more time and resources on foreign missions or church planting than community outreach than I am out of balance.

So how specifically do I reach my community? How do I make disciples? For starters, I need to understand who lives in my community. That is why demographics is important. If my community is ethnically diverse – then I need to reach out to different ethnic groups – even if we (our church) is not so diverse. If my community is undergoing some form of transition, then there are new families moving in that may not even know that our church exists.

The fact is, communities change. For the last 60+ years in metropolitan america, populations have been moving from urban neighborhoods to sub-urban communities to near-rural communities. Churches formed in city neighborhoods have often moved with their membership – from city to suburb to farm field. Yet the urban neighborhoods are still there – just different people live there. The suburbs that formed after WWII are still there, but the generations that built and moved into them are now passing away. Our suburbs are all in different states of generational transition, as the last of the original owners are gone or about to go. Now the younger generations are living in the city again, and collar suburbs are becoming ethnically diverse.

These transitions are opportunities for churches. Opportunities to decide – do we stay here while our membership moves further out, or back toward city neighborhoods. Do we continue to reach our demographically changing community or do we isolate ourselves or do we move to re-center around our membership? There are no simple answers, only we must consider the fruitfulness of our ministry, our mission, as our priority. Without this, our decision can be somewhat self serving – something that ministry should not become.

One thing I have noticed – as neighborhoods change through generations, those communities that have diversified, tend to become more stable over time, and churches that learn to minister effectively in ethnically diverse communities benefit from the diversity and the stability. Maybe this is what God intended – Maybe as the global community becomes increasingly more mobile and transient – the ends of the the earth will start to come to us. Especially if we don’t take our eyes off of our community as our first mission field.

Uncool Church

What would it be like to go to a church where all the whack jobs go? A church where prostitutes and homeless people feel COMFORTABLE. A church full of salesmen, lawyers and golf professionals. A church where everyone is recovering from something. Me, I am a recovering butthole and pottymouth. You might be a recovering snob, or a recovering heroin addict – but we are all recovering from something.

The suburban church has a problem: suburbanites! Most of us live in the suburbs to get away from exactly those people who wouldn’t feel comfortable at church. For many of us, church tends to be a place where we pretend to be someone that we are not. We mask as many of our sins as we can, and try to appear pious and spiritual. We avoid deep relationships at church, where people can rub up against us and possibly see those things we are masking.

Whether we admit it or not, we are much more like the pharisee than the tax collector from Luke 18:

18:9 Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else. 18:10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 18:11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ 18:13 The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ 18:14 I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The truth is, people in our suburban communities desparately need Jesus. In this regard, they are not different than the urban people that they avoid. They may be more affluent, but not more righteous. They may be more conformant to societal norms, but they are not less judged.

Suburbanites have tended to buy into the American Dream – self-sufficiency. We are wealthy. We think that because we have much, that we have earned it; that we somehow “deserve” it; that it somehow reflects God’s blessing toward us. We judge people who are less successful. We collectively tend to look down on pathetic people. We forget how pathetic we are.

We sit in small groups and ask prayers for our family, neighbors, and friends; for everyone but ourselves. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are being spiritual because we do not express our needs. We praise others in our small group who appear knowledgable about spiritual matters, or who pray with spiritual words, but even those mask the depth of our depravity.

We all have issues – conflict with family members, issues with lust or greed or coveteousness, idols, hobbies or passions that have displaced God in our lives.

We need the cleansing of the word – but how can we “get clean” if we are not ready to “come clean”. When we take off our mask, we are just as uncool as those we judge and despise. We need to learn to be uncool at church.

Disciples, Apostles and Missionaries

When Jesus was alive, his followers were called disciples. Disciples are followers. Disciples are learning, growing, developing based on their proximity and relationship to whom they are following. In the evangelical church, we talk about discipleship. We talk about following Christ. To be a disciple of Christ, one must therefore have a relationship with Him. Jesus as part of His incarnation, left us His words. The scripture, especially the gospels, are filled with knowledge of Jesus as recorded by those who were physically with Him on this earth. Jesus also left us the Holy Spirit, so that we would have a comforter, and a counselor. We know Jesus through His Word, and we experience Him through the Spirit. We have relationship with Him in this way, because He lives.

After Jesus died, twelve of his disciples were called Apostles. Apostles are “sent out”. Apostles are sent out, emissaries with a message for the world. Apostles are evangelists, spreading good news. Jesus choses as his emissaries, ordinary men who had been disciples. They were not wealthy, particularly well educated, politically powerful. They were fiercely loyal, utterly dependent (on Him), and willing to suffer and die. Jesus gave the apostles tremenous power (through the Holy Spirit) to do good works on his behalf. He gave them a mission – to make disciples – in all the world. A mission that we are still carrying out to this day. Jesus did not tell his apostles – go therefore and kill anyone who doesn’t convert – he did say go therefore and make disciples. Our church leaders today are apostles. This includes pastors, elders, teachers – those who provide a message.

In modern times, the church sends out missionaries. They are, in fact, apostles. They are evangelists. Most of them are, like the first apostles, not wealthy, particularly well educated, or politically powerful. Many of them are bivocational – they travel to a far land, work in some vocation, while spreading the good news in their spare time. They are often persecuted, intimidated, unappreciated, and disregarded by those they come to serve, yet they keep on. The apostle Paul was perhaps the first missionary. The model that he defined, lives on today: He was funded by churches, bivocational (a tent maker), he traveled from place to place starting churches (a church planter). He worked with indigenous people helped them form a congregation, established disciples, established local leadership and then moved on to a new place – continuing to correspond with and assist the churches he founded. When those churches become self-sustaining, they then can send their own missionaries.

So where are you on this continuum? Disciple? Apostle? Missionary? Well?

Status Quo

I wonder how many church “leaders” feel that their role is to maintain the status quo. I wonder how many church “leaders” are really qualified as leaders. I wonder if the qualifications for elder and deacon offices listed in the new testament, are missing the obvious qualifications of leadership. As if, the author expected us to select natural leaders, and merely wrote out the constraints or “passive” criteria for the job.

I have been elected or called to church office twice in my life, both times have been somewhat terrible experiences, but for different reasons. The first time, I was young, and not very mature spiritually. I was seduced by the call, and was asked then to lead the board, when the then chairman stepped aside unexpectedly very shortly after I started on the board. I really had no idea what the board was respnsible for, nor had I experience as a board member before being asked to be the chair. There was nothing that I could do but try to maintain the status quo. My prayers were that the board and I would not fall down on the job, and that we could keep things going.

The second time I was called was 12 years later in a different church. I was called to a board that was largely apathetic, and not well organized. Our two greatest responsibilities were preparing the church budget, and maintaining the facility. I clearly felt that neither of these responsibilities were particularly suited to my talents and gifts. I served my term, but realized during my term of service, that both boards really only served to maintain the status quo, and that whenever they wanted to change something, they formed a more executive structure focused on the change at hand.

I am not suggesting that all churches are like this, but my my conversations with others lead me to believe that my experiences are less common than one might expect.

The new testament church talks about three officers:

Deacon (Diakono) – Literally servant or minister – Do the bidding of others
Elder, Overseers, Bishops () – in a position of oversight –
Missionaries, Apostles (Apostolos) – those specifically called to be sent out –

With the exception of missionaries, I think that most who are called to the offices of deacon or elder are focused on maintaining the status quo, except where there are problems, where the status quo needs to be restored. When the status quo no longer is effective (you know this when everyone in your church is older than 50, or other sign) changes to the status quo may be necessary. Obviously, or perhaps not so obviously, if we want to prevent that state, we can make more frequent, smaller changes – rather than waiting until there is an obvious problem, then making significant and painful changes. As you might expect, the way to figure out what needs change when is by measuring fruit.

There is no clear precedent or directive in the new testament for how change is to be instituted. While the tree huggers (people who don’t like change) reading this will cheer this statement as a directive to keep things the same forever, institutionalizing the literal implementation of the new testament church – the rest of us recognize that even the new testament church continually changed and adapted to every local culture it invaded, with only the dictates of mission and doctrine as constants.

So who identifies opportunities for change, who decides that change is required, and who leads that change? It seems to me that each church or ministry should maintain in it’s leadership one or more “malcontents” or “troublemakers” whose job it is to suggest opportunities for change, but who do not have the right to unilaterally decide to implement that change. Likewise, each church or ministry should maintain in it’s leadership one or more agents of change whose job it is to champion and implement a change once it has been decided.

That leaves only the decision rights. Every ministry has their own form of governance. Some are more executive (less people make decisions) and others are more congregational (more people make decisions).

Regardless of the participation model, when deciding to implement change, there are benefits to correctly communicating and articulating that change so that it does not come as a surprise. Your community may not be 100% in favor of the change, but if you can articulate rationally the reason for the change, especially the desired outcome of the change, you will do a better job of getting people on board. The smaller, more gradual changes are easier for people than the larger more drastic feeling changes.

In summary – your leadership should not only be maintaining the status quo, they should be evaluating the results (fruit) from the status quo and recommending and implementing changes, in order to continue to produce fruit in accordance with the mission and vision of The Church.

Status Quo Vs. Tradition

Status quo is fact. This is the status quo – the state of things – the way things are. There is little emotional attachment to the status quo, other than the natural human inertia – the aversion to change – even change that is potentially positive.

Tradition is different! it is “the way we have always done it”, “the way they did it when I was young”, “the way Dad (or Mom) always did it”. It is imbued with nostalgia and emotion. People have an inherent tendency to view the familiar as correct, and unfamiliar as somehow less right. Perhaps “right” is not the correct word, perhaps it is “normal” vs. “abnormal”. Having watched my share of national geographic specials as a kid, I remember thinking over and over – how can those people be so weird? They simply were raised with different traditions.

During Jesus ministry on Earth, he consistently railed against the traditions of men, especially when those traditions were interfering with people having relationship with God. The Jewish people at that time, especially a party called the Pharisee’s, had established a system of legalism and ritual that portended to make it easier for people to figure out if they were following God’s law, while at the same time it masked the fact that all men are sinners and in need of God’s mercy. In the end, it was a system that created status for the Pharisees thus they were heavily invested in those traditions, because of the status afforded them.

So how do traditions manifest in ministry today?

Some traditions are involved with the worship service, the liturgy, the music, etc. Others have to do with kids programs: AWANA clubs or Pioneers. Some traditions manifest in attitudes towards christian education or home schooling. All of these traditions can be beneficial, but can limit fruitfulness. Perhaps one of the most insidious traditions has to do with legalism and behavior: the No drinking, No dancing, No movies approach. It leads to a judgemental spirit – and it tends to alienate those that we most seek to enter our fellowship – sinners. This tradition, so common in Baptist churches of the last two generations, is the reason that it is hard to find a church with Baptist in the name in any suburban community.

Traditions can become part of the ministry brand or identity – aspects of our ministry that “cannot be changed”. These are difficult to change because without them, “we wouldn’t be us”. If you think about ministry branding, our brand should be Jesus Christ, any distinctive we try to attain for our ministry is really in the end only differentiating ourselves from Him.

A conclusion:
As the church membership dwindles, the remainder of parishoners strongly identify with the traditions, and threaten to leave if change is implemented. What is to be said about this?

Likely the traditions were established as new practices or methods at the time, replacing some older cherished tradition. They were innovative and effective at producing fruit. I think of “The Reformation” as a classic example of replacing traditions that had become unfruitful. Now, the culture around us has changed, the demographics of the community have changed, the demographics of our ministry participants have changed. Time for change – specifically to become more effective at producing fruit.

Ministry participants who care more about the traditions than about fruit need to be educated, indoctrinated, and re-purposed. If they think the purpose of the ministry is to please them – they are mistaken. It is not – it is to please God. It is to Make Disciples. It is to do the good works that God has prepared in advance for us to do. They either are willing to be re-purposed or not. It can either happen at their current church or somewhere else. When they leave the church, they will have much less authority or “say so” than they currently think they do, or are entitled to, especially if they have inhabited leadership positions in church.

A leader who threatens to leave your church is literally holding your ministry hostage. He or she is a terrorist. Do not negotiate with terrorists. If they are a large contributor, give them their last months contribution back.

Worst case scenario:
What about a church split. I think that most church leaders fear this more than anything. Church splits can be painful, dividing even families, and can hurt the ministry’s effectiveness.

Lemonade from lemons:
Maybe you should consider turning the split into a plant. If the difference of opinion is not over doctrine, but something less essential (tradition), rather than parting company in anger, support that leader and maintain a healthy relationship – plant a new church. Especially if the ministry overall is healthy, growing or maintaining and producing fruit. Let God find a way to make a problem into an opportunity to produce even more fruit.