I’ve been reading a fascinating book this week: Outliers: The Story of Success by acclaimed author Malcolm Gladwell. Not only is the book an interesting study on the factors that go into success, it’s also a heck of a good read. Gladwell’s prose is engaging, easy to understand, and best of all full of reference points that you can actually understand (though there are some pretty high-minded references as well). It’s a great read for anyone who likes non-fiction.
But that’s not why I’m writing about the book.
The church where I work is settled in a little community called Grayson, Georgia, a nice little suburban offshoot of the Metro-Atlanta complex. It’s got all of the hallmarks of a Met-ATL town: grocery stores, fast food chains, sit down restaurants, doctors, lawyers, good schools, and plenty of other assorted businesses and services that make the local economy spin. It’s also got a butt-load of churches, since we live on the first or second notch of the Bible Belt, and while there are certainly plenty of people available to fill the churches, the number of people who actually go to church is smaller, making the competition to get people into your pews more severe.
Now, if this were strictly a case of business and marketing, this would be a fairly simple problem to solve. You would realign your marketing campaign and change your strategy to meet the needs and expectations of the community, challenge your leadership and labor base to double their efforts, and you’d do what you could to draw people to your door.
But the church is not a business. It’s a living, breathing organism that operates on an entirely different level than a tire shop or a pizza parlor.
All too often, we forget that truth. We treat the church as if a formulaic fix will be the perfect solution to what ails us. Numbers a little down? No problem – just change the music, or the sermon, or the dress code, or the programs. People seem disinterested? Add a new book study on “How to Improve Your Life,” or a create a self-help group that caters to the latest trend in therapy. Sometimes, instead of really looking within ourselves (and by that I mean the church’s membership as well as its community), we scan the aisles of the local bookstore and hope that someone else has a pre-packaged fix that will do.
Most of the time they won’t. Do, that is. They tend to do not, which is next to death when you’ve hitched your hopes to that pre-packaging.
Which brings me back to Outliers: success is knowing who you are, where you’re from, and what circumstances surround you. In other words, it’s about introspection and imagination and ambition and intelligence and all of the other things we sing praises to in our business classes, but it’s also about timing and luck and providence (if you believe in that sort of thing, which one would hope a church certainly does).
So how can a church in a changing community set itself up for success? And come to think of it, how should a church even define success?
The past few decades success was easy to define: growing attendance, growing budget, growing programs. If you had those things as a church, you were successful. But then someone realized: what does that have to do with the Will of God? Those were great benchmarks for a business, but lousy for a church, because a church has weightier and more ambitious goals to strive for beyond simple numerical growth. But at the same time, a church should grow.
So back to my church. We are a historic church, over 160 years in the same location, which means that the people of this congregation have always done a fairly decent job of assessing the community and the times and adjusting to both. We’ve never been “trendy” but we’ve always been accessible – and that sense of community has helped the church stay around long after others have closed their doors and vanished into the ether. Entering our 161st year, we’re looking at yet another shift in the community: the turnover from the Greatest and Boomer Generations to the Gen X and Millennial Generations.
In other words, the script is completely flipping. And in five years, it will be completely flipped.
Out will be the consumer church model. In will be the engaged church model – one where the members do more than just sit in the pews. The expectations will be higher from the younger generations because of the Gen Xers’ cynical and critical eye and the Millennials’ belief in their power to create a better world. The margin for error will be smaller, as the younger generations are accustomed to sharper, faster, clearer models of leadership that see the future well before it arrives.
Reaction won’t work with them. They’ll demand proactive measures.
So my church finds itself (to borrow a cliche) on the threshold; not yet in that world, but beyond the one we’ve been comfortable with. What will we do? How will we change? Can we survive?
Those are questions we need to be asking. Those are answers we need to be seeking – both in prayer and in research.
I believe we’ll find our way.