Some years ago I met with the pulpit committee of a certain church about the possibility of me becoming that church’s next pastor. I don’t normally take Tonya along for such meetings, but this committee wanted to meet her as well. So, we made the drive to a designated restaurant that split the mileage distance between our home and the church. Once at the restaurant, we all ordered our food and then proceeded with the discussion at hand.
The church was one that church growth experts call a “graying” congregation. That simply means it had a lot more old folks than young folks. In this case, the “graying” was evidenced by the pulpit committee, which consisted of two men and three women. Each committee member was over 55, and the chairman was well into his 70s.
Much of the meeting consisted of the committee members, particularly the three women, bemoaning the fact that their church had become a shell of its former self in regards to attendance. The church’s heyday had been in the ’60s and ’70s, and they wanted things back to the way they used to be. Whereas they had once boasted numbers of close to 200 on Sunday mornings, they were now down to 50 or so.
According to the committee, the main culprit in their church’s declining attendance was a megachurch’s new satellite campus that had set up shop just a few miles down the road from their church and was pulling in large numbers of people, especially young couples. In case you don’t know what a satellite campus is, here’s how it works. A megachurch rents a large building in either a different town or at least another part of town, and sends some of their staff to that new site to work it. It is the job of these staff members to get the new congregation up and running. That means knocking on doors, handing out flyers, running ads in the local paper, renting billboards, creating a Facebook page, and whatever else it takes to get folks in the door.
The megachurch pays the bills to equip the site with the best of anything and everything. The audio and video systems are cutting edge. Comfortable chairs are used instead of padded pews. Contemporary Christian songs are used instead of classic hymns. A praise-and-worship team and band are used rather than a song leader and choir. Words on a big screen are used instead of hymn books.
The target group for any satellite campus will always be the young couples with children. If something appeals to that generation, that’s what will be prioritized. That means youth programs and lots of them. It also means casual dress, modern translations of the Bible, and sermons that focus less on doctrine and more on issues relevant to the ones such couples face today.
Every satellite campus has a campus pastor, but these pastors don’t normally do any preaching. Instead, the sermons from the lead pastor of the megachurch are piped in via video and played. The campus pastor’s job is to manage the staff, make sure the building is always up to spec, collect the offerings, and funnel everything back to the megachurch. Whatever vision the megachurch has for the satellite campus, the campus pastor is responsible for implementing it. He might also do some counseling and fundraising, but no matter what he does he is always working under the lead pastor of the megachurch.
Okay, so this is what the members of that pulpit committee were up against. A massive church that was located about 30 minutes from their church had launched a satellite campus in their town, and that satellite campus had become the hot new thing in that town. So, the question those pulpit committee members wanted me to answer was, “How would you go about getting our church back to its rightful place of prominence in our town?”
Keep in mind now that they had also made it clear that they: didn’t want to convert to contemporary Christian music, didn’t want to use any translation other than the K.J.V., didn’t want to forego Sunday night and Wednesday night services, didn’t want to change anything about their Sunday School organization, and expected me to wear a coat and tie when I preached. They also loved their beautiful, old sanctuary. But they wanted to grow. That’s a line I remember very well. “We want to grow.”
Well, according to Tonya, I was far too blunt and far too honest in my answer, even though I really wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings or tick them off. All I told them was that their church might never get back to what it had been in the ’60s and ’70s, but that didn’t mean that God had forsaken the church. The church still had an important ministry, but perhaps it was a ministry that should focus on the elderly who still loved that style of church. After all, that generation is every bit as important in God’s eyes as the younger generation. I explained that times had changed and that the church simply wasn’t going to attract the young couples by using a church model from the 1950s. Basically, I said something to the effect, “I can’t promise you that I can lead your church back to where it once was. All I can promise you is that I will faithfully preach the Bible, visit the sick, and lead the church in the direction in which God burdens me to lead it. And as long as what we do is pleasing to Him, we’ll be fine.”
I myself thought that was a reasonable answer, and as Tonya and I left the restaurant the committee chairman leaned toward my ear and said, “We’ll let you know if we are interested, but I feel confident that you’ll be hearing from us soon.” That led me to believe that the meeting must have gone pretty well. However, once Tonya and I got in the car she informed me that I had thrown cold water all over that committee, particularly those three women, and she had serious doubts that I would ever get a call. When I attempted to defend myself by saying, “But everything I told them was the truth,” she responded, “Yes, it was, but those women wanted you to tell them that their church is as great as they think it is and that there is no doubt that it can get back to what it used to be.”
And so how did things turn out? Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, I’m still waiting on that call. Evidently that chairman was in the minority with his assessment of the meeting. I really don’t know what became of that church or who they elected as pastor. What I do know is that the satellite campus from that megachurch is still operating full bore in that town. I also know that the entire experience was a memorable one for Tonya and myself. Rarely have we seen the stark conflict between the older generation of churchgoers and the younger generation on better display than we saw at that restaurant that night. Church growth experts have even coined a term for this conflict. They call it “worship wars.”
Really, though, the reality of the situation is that the “worship wars” lessen a little more with each passing year. The reason is obvious: The older generation is dying off. That’s why there won’t be any more “worship wars” in twenty years or so, perhaps even sooner. And, needless to say, the winning side has already been determined. Until then we pastors must stand in the gap between those who favor the old way of “doing church” and those who favor the new way.
I don’t mind telling you that this is a difficult challenge. Somehow, though, in the midst of it all, we must try to stay in tune with God and hear His still, small voice of direction, guidance, and spiritual discernment. Sometimes that voice promotes the new, but other times it promotes the old as each situation (each congregation) is unique. Like I said, it’s a tough balancing act for a pastor. I just wish that more churchgoers on both sides would be more open minded to the other side’s position. Even more important than that, I wish that all of us Christians would be more open minded to what God wants as opposed to what we want.