Our church here in Blacksburg, Virginia has seen growth in the last two years. It’s exciting, humbling and at times discouraging.
How can great growth be discouraging, you may ask? Well, when the faucet is turned on all the way, and the water is flowing, you sometimes don’t notice that there are small leaks. We’ve had that in our church amid the growth. Though many are being poured in, and the enthusiasm of new faces, transformation and joy captures our attention, we are also aware of a slow trickle of folks exiting our church.
I had a conversation with someone recently who is leaving our church, and he was gracious and kind enough to visit with me and affirmed our leadership and our church. He and his family are long-time members of our church (about 5-6 years in an eight year-old church). They joined our church from another church in the area a few years after it started. The growth of the last two years has caused some concern for him.
Since I’ve been pastor, we’ve heard different reasons for people who have chosen to exit our church for others:
- The sermons are too long.
- The music is too loud.
- It doesn’t seem like the kind of church you can raise your family in.
- Not enough children’s ministry.
- You’re not organized enough.
Those are most of the reasons we’ve heard.
One of the most baffling, however, is one that we hear a lot: You’re becoming a “college church.”
You see, we’ve been seeing exponential growth among our college student and graduate student population. I would think that’s to be expected in a town where Virginia Tech dominates the landscape and local politics. It’s a campus of almost 30,000, and I would hope that a church in its shadow is reaching its staff and students. While our growth has been steady in many demographics (we’re not successfully reaching new people who are 60+), the college and graduate student population of our church has grown at a faster rate than others.
So our church is growing “younger,” percentage-wise.
This was the underlying reason for the man I visited with, though he also said that his family wanted something more “traditional” and more “stable.” Both are fair desires.
In our community, there is lots of transition. It does get exhausting, and at times, disheartening to pour yourself into someone’s life only to have that person or family move in 2-3 years. Then you start over and do it again. And again. I can understand the desire for a more consistent and stable church experience.
On the other hand, I personally have also been around churches that only grow as a result of a fight at another church. They aren’t reaching the younger generations. They aren’t developing new leaders. They are essentially shuffling sheep and satisfied with status quo. You won’t find yourself on a leadership board or committee there unless you’ve been there for years.
I know of churches that are dying for young people. Literally. Their congregation is graying, and as much as they want young adults, they’re not prepared to make the adjustments and sacrifices that a vibrant ministry to and with people in their 20s and 30s requires.
It’s a strange, surreal situation that we’re in. People are leaving us because we’re too young.
I wish we had more older adults with the vision of teaching the younger adults what it looks like to walk in humble, obedient joy with Jesus. I think it’s a beautiful gift that one generation can give to another. I also think it’s biblical and intentional.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78.4)
O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.
So even to old age and gray hairs,
O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to another generation,
your power to all those to come. (Psalm 71-17-18)
I think the point is that wisdom generally comes with age and is meant to be passed on. Wherever there’s young people, there is immense opportunity to leave a legacy of faith, obedience and righteousness. You may have to sacrifice stability and comfort in order to invest in young people.
On the other hand, we have consistent leadership discussions in our church about how to encourage and minister to older adults as well. We ask how a church that is reaching young adults can also appeal and reach out to the older adults in its community. We have no concrete answers at present, but we are praying consistently that God would bring older adults with a vision of discipling others – both old and young – into our fellowship.
What are your thoughts?