O WE NEED TO change what we’re doing? It appears we’re dying as a church.”
The question was pointed, sobering, and it stung as we sat together in our monthly elders’ meeting. For a long time it had been the elephant in the room. Finally, someone had said it out loud.
Copies of our church clerk’s 25-year membership report laid out the obvious in black and white. The wiggly chart line jumped around some, but when taken from the high 25 years ago to the present, it was a steady, heartbreaking decline. Like so many of our sister churches, we had more people on the books than in the pews each week. Only about half were attending at all. It looked bleak. We knew we were in trouble.
For a while the five of us sat very still in our silence. It was a hard pill to swallow when we really faced the facts. It was obvious, without even speaking the words, that people were choosing to avoid us—our church, the church we loved—the place where we had worked so hard. It was hard but necessary—we had to admit to and address the problem.
We talked for a bit about who was to blame. Suggested culprits ranged from all levels of conference leadership, to the lack of people’s spirituality, to the ineffective meetings of the last evangelist, to the fact that we are now living in the “end times” so we should expect things to be shaken. Somehow blaming those who weren’t present seemed a shallow way out. We had all smugly pointed the finger at others many times. It was clear now that for all that finger-pointing, and attempts at laying the blame elsewhere, we had gained nothing.
“Could it be we’re really to blame?”
More silence. Accepting blame for the state of how things are is hard. It was hard to really take the responsibility of it. To do so would then beg the questions “What’s wrong?” and “What are we going to do about it?” But as leaders—four elders sitting there with the pastor—it was up to us to be the spiritual leaders. We were supposed to know what to do. But as we sat there, we wondered, “Is this all that the work of Christ is to be here in Wausau?”
I asked if we actually knew what the problem truly was—not just making quick guesses, but really coming to some understanding of why people were deserting us. “Perhaps,”
I suggested, “we should assume we don’t know what the problem is, nor its scope, and start from there.”
That night started a long, time-consuming change process that affected every aspect of our church. We were determined to find out why we were struggling, and, with the Lord’s help, find the way forward. We knew that if we didn’t change, we would be like so many other churches who appear to be facing certain closure within the next 15 years or so. We believed the time to act was now. If we didn’t, the results of not acting would be a disaster for our church’s ministry here in Wausau, Wisconsin.
Starting From Scratch
Not knowing exactly what to do, we started from scratch. We looked first at who was attending and who was not. It was painfully obvious that we were missing many young adults. We had become mostly a builder/boomer-aged church. Very few attended under the age of 45.
But what was particularly painful was that it was our own young adults—the young adult children of our attending members—who were on the membership books and hadn’t sat in our pews for a long time. They might come if we pressured them enough for some special event. But on their own they had other things to do on Sabbath morning. Laying guilt on them seemed to have no effect either. Many parents have given up hope that their children would ever return to church. The plan had been to just keep praying that somehow they would come to their senses and return.
We all wanted them back. But all our efforts to that point had met with failure and frustration. A few of those young adults had told us bluntly, “It’s too boring.” Ouch. We couldn’t help but take it personally.
Over the next couple of weeks we put what age groups were attending on a graph-type chart so we could see what groups were missing. When laid out in that format we discovered that we were seriously missing those born after 1964. Evidence has indicated that a church cannot survive long with that type of demographic.1 It was obvious that we were witnessing the “graying of Adventism” right in our own congregation.
“Pastor, how do we reach our young adults?”
Asking one of the few remaining young adults to read the Scripture for worship or to help collect the offering hadn’t seemed to be effective in getting them involved with the church. Perhaps we needed to do something more than nominating a young adult to be one of the sound technicians or to sit as a nonvoting member on the church board.
Had our church become irrelevant? The irony is that Jesus is always relevant to every culture—to every person—to every age. Perhaps our church, however, had lost its relevancy and was viewed
as little more than another community building to drive by.
“Let’s look to find out what others have learned in reaching young adults and then go to school on them,” I said. “Not to do what they are doing exactly, for they don’t live here in Wausau, but to find how they went about getting relevant to the young adults in their church and community.”
I purchased Dan Kimball’s book, The Emerging Church,2 for each elder. After a few weeks we discussed it together. It was through reading Kimball’s book that we discovered why we were not reaching our young adults. We saw that the culture of our society had changed drastically. And somehow, we hadn’t noticed. We missed it.
“Now I understand what my kids are saying,” commented one of the elders with twentysomething children. “It’s like we need to learn a new language—or maybe a new culture for us to do church in. No wonder they think we’re boring. We are boring. I finally get it.”
Smiles started to come to our faces. It was like a door had opened and we saw a way ahead for the first time. We could now start to dream and articulate what we might become. Eagerness replaced frustration. Excitement canceled our depression.
After a few weeks the elders drew into our discussion the personal ministries committee members. They were brought up to speed about what was happening. Each of the personal ministries committee members were given the book by Brian McLaren, More Ready Than You Realize.3 This group also read and shared what they had found. They also saw we were trying to do church in a place that no longer existed for those born after 1964. They saw that now was our greatest opportunity to share Jesus—the culture was now open to spiritual issues.
Knowing that we had to change what we were doing, we privately and corporately surrendered the leadership of our church to the Lord. We prayed earnestly that the Lord would lead us to where He was already working, and that He would show us what we were to be. We began meeting with our church family as a whole to share and move together on what it seemed the Lord was calling us to be. Over several months a shared vision developed.
The church family then developed a list of what we needed to do. Our first priority was to stop boring people at our worship service and create a time in which people could encounter the living God. Worshipping God had to be the most important thing we could do. Yet we recognized that there was no energy or urgency in what we were doing during our worship hour. Formalized routine and predictability had led to widespread apathy. Our worship service had become a spectator sport with little opportunity for each individual to become involved. Therefore, making a change there was perhaps the easiest and most welcome.
Harder was the change in our personal and church family attitudes. Decline and lack of a shared vision can lead to sour attitudes and talk about everything and everyone. We decided together that we would not be a place that ran down any of our conference leaders, the denomination, or our schools at whatever level. We saw that it wasn’t helpful and wasn’t needed. We decided together to ban crabbiness. That was a major step, and what a relief when it became a reality!
We also determined not to dump on other denominations or religions. We certainly didn’t like it when people did that to us. We knew they were almost always wrong about what we believed and what we were about. So we turned from criticizing the theology and practice of others to talking about Jesus and His matchless grace. What a refreshing change. Church became a safe place to bring others from different faiths.
This started our journey. Of course, it is still developing and will continue to expand and grow. We recognize that we are at the beginning of our journey, not the end. But now we welcome change that brings the ministry of Christ forward and improves our work for Him.
Two years into our change process we took another hard look at what had happened. We were delighted to again look at the chart graphs and see that our church had grown from about 55 in attendance to more than 180. All age brackets had seen significant growth, but our hearts were delighted to see that among young adults there was a more than 60 percent increase. Now young adults are in the majority out of all age groups. We happily learned that when we targeted young adults, all age groups grew.
We could all see that our church had turned around and had become a place of joy, excitement, and spiritual growth. Everyone could see that things were now different. Board meetings became exciting times as new things were constantly happening. And members are eager to participate in what they can see easily as a spirit-filled church going where Jesus is leading.
Four years have passed since that elders’ meeting at which we faced the facts. The church continues to grow and to learn where the Lord is leading now. New ministries are starting up all the time, and the church is turning more outward to engage our broader community. We are eager to see what the Lord is opening for us in the days ahead.
1Dudley, Roger. Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories From a 10-year Study. Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald, 2000, p. 36.
2Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003.
3McLaren, Brian. More Ready Than You Realize: Evangelism as a Dance in the Postmodern Matrix. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2002.
Bill Bossert, D.Min., was pastor of The Shepherd’s House: An Adventist Community of Love, a Seventh-day Adventist church in Wausau, Wisconsin, when he wrote this. He recently became pastor of The Edge Christian Worship Center in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.