While we love to celebrate all the good things that are taking place in some of the larger churches here in North America, on Tuesday night I had a brief conversation with a pastor whose church represents the other half of the megachurch equation.
His church is located in a rural area that has not seen any growth in many decades. Urban sprawl from nearby towns is still decades away, if it happens at all. Many in the surrounding farms have retired; they winter in Florida; health keeps them from going to church; and many have lost interest in organized religion or religion in general.
If any young families have located to the area, they are more likely to drive to a nearby church which, although nowhere near the definition of megachurch, picks up young families like your vacuum picks up dust and dirt.
This pastor’s church however stands in contrast. The last time I visited — about six years ago — there was no sound system. I don’t think they had a photocopier in the office, either. Nearly two centuries of tradition doesn’t draw a crowd. He remarked that the congregation is aging, as is he. Ceding the church to a next generation pastor and next generation people really only works in urban centers. The Michael Frost stories can only be replicated in so many locations; I’m guessing about one in a hundred has the right combination of facility, leadership and potential parishioners; just as lightning only strikes in certain random places.
The difference here is that the pastor was real not abstract; he was standing directly next to me, and I know a handful of families — albeit all older families — who attend this church. I can imagine how it feels to think that sometime in the not so distant future this church, which once played host to decades of different types of ministry to children, teens, young adults and mature adults, will be converted to a community center, or a bingo hall, or an antiques shop, or someone’s house or be razed altogether. Or maybe I can’t imagine how it feels to know that a place where generations met with God faces being decommissioned.
Other than the Roman Catholic Church and certain Episcopalians, the parish system — whereby you attend the church in your immediate community — is dead. In a link story yesterday, we reported that at least 600,000 Americans do a ninety minute church commute. That’s an hour and a half in metric time. People who chauffeur their kids to soccer and skating and cello lessons have no qualms about driving a longer distance to get their kids into a good midweek program at a church with a solid Christian Education department.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. There is also the general decline in church attendance. The entry of North America into a post-Christian era. The effect of shift work on church attendance. The effects of health on older members. The growth of the megachurches is not entirely always transfer growth, but it is a transfer of potential members to the house of worship where critical mass has been attained, where a crowd draws a crowd.
And now you know the rest of the story.