Is the average age in your church or denomination climbing ominously? If so, then it’s time to do what others have done to reverse the trend that leads to decline.
Sandra timidly enters a worship meeting. She feels ashamed of last night’s escapade and asks herself, “Can God forgive me?” Hoping desperately, she sits out of sight. Two elderly ladies spot her and whisper. “What are they saying?” Sandra wonders. “Is it my dress? Hair too mussy? Rings in the wrong part of my body?” She waits until no one is watching and slips out of the meeting.
In another part of town, Walter admits to his friend, “I’m weary of our selfish lifestyle; it has no purpose.” His friend sighs. “Me, too. Let’s try church. Maybe God can fill that vacuum in our souls.” They enter a meeting and music begins. Walter grimaces and whispers, “They must think God enjoys that ugly noise!” His friend replies, “No wonder. Nearly everyone’s geriatric.” The sermon begins, and Walter mutters quietly, “Why does that guy hide up there behind that huge pulpit desk? Maybe he thinks it gives authority to his dogmatic assertions.” Walter’s friend answers, “I have questions I’d like to discuss about his topic, but he only does monologues without discussion. Let’s go get a beer.”
Sandra, Walter and their friends need a different church experience. But why a second track? Why not simply change the first track? Church history, ancient and recent, shows that it is normally easier and causes less friction to let a few venture into new territory, than to force all believers in an older church to abandon their cherished, conventional ways.
If a Western church’s name has any of these four words in it, then it’s probably in decline (we grant the exceptions): Memorial, First, Saint or United. All four names look back to the past. Looking back can paralyze a congregation, deterring it from initiating ventures that God requires in His Word.
Steps to start your second track:
1. Let those on the second track simply do what Jesus and His apostles required of any congregation, without forcing them to do anything else.
It’s so easy! There’s nothing novel about it. Throughout history, God has launched godly people on a new path: Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Ezra, Christ Himself and Cornelius. The apostle Paul provided a striking example of a radically different track among New Testament churches. In Galatia he severely reprimanded those who were being circumcised, yet just a few miles away in Lystra Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews who lived there, Acts 16:3. In both cases, Paul respected local culture. He also told the Corinthians, “Where the Spirit is there is liberty” To free up church workers on the second track, do not impose any rules that keep a new church or cell group from obeying Jesus’ commands, especially to baptize and serve Communion.
2. Never vote on whether a church will obey Jesus’ commands; just obey.
Since Jesus exercises “all authority in heaven and earth,” to put His command to a vote would give higher authority to our majority rule than to our King of Kings, which would be a form of apostasy. Take the joyful plunge. Let your brothers who prefer to stay on the first track lie beside still waters. Bless them; don’t argue; just tell them with a smile that you’re obeying Jesus.
3. Let those who shun institutional church gather to worship in a New Testament way.
What many folk seek in a church is what the New Testament prescribes. They want…
Experience. Let seekers meet the living, present, powerful Christ, as the apostles helped folk do. Many want more than to have you teach them abstract ideas about Him.
Interaction. Meet in groups that are small enough to heed the New Testament “one another” commands. These include teaching, edifying, strengthening, correcting and consoling one another instead of sitting as passive hearers of monologues.
Connection. Praise God with songs that everyone can easily sing that say “we” and “us” instead of the excessively individualistic “I” and “me.”
4. Go out looking for the receptive folk whom God has prepared to meet you.
Your church members will probably have to step outside of their familiar social venue to befriend folk who are poorer and less educated, as both Jesus and His apostles did in many ways.
5. Invite believers in your congregation to learn to make such a second track.
You might say to your church members, “If others won’t come to our church with its beautiful traditions and forms, then we will take our church to them”. Then do so. Invite them to come as volunteers to hold small start-up meetings as a kind of beachhead among receptive people.
Orient these new workers by gathering in a home or restaurant where the people live that you plan to serve. This will accustom the workers to serve in that new environment.
Let younger believers plan activities that create a party atmosphere. Provide food, games or whatever will make a festive gathering such as Zacheus and Levi did when they invited their friends to meet Jesus. Most seekers enjoy such a gathering. Avoid it becoming a mere Bible study.
6. When new folk get involved and want to bring their friends, let them start a new group.
Your objective should be to see hundreds, eventually thousands, of folk come to faith in Jesus. Most will not want to come and sit in a chapel or auditorium; guide them in starting many new, little gatherings wherever their friends or relatives will feel comfortable. In order to absorb 1000s of new believers, the early church had them gather from house to house to enjoy the sacraments and loving interaction. Some 35 years later, God arranged to have the temple torn down, so that His people would adjust to the second track of that time.