The Future of the American ChurchMark Brooks
Every time I visit Europe, I come home depressed. My wife and I just returned from visiting my daughter’s family in Germany, where my son-in-law is stationed in the Army. This is the second time, thanks to the Army, one of our kids has provided us with a free bed to tour Europe while seeing the family. We had a blast, but at the same time, it was sobering to once again walk around in Europe.
A few weeks before we left, I met for lunch with my long-time friend and Coach reader, Wendell Lang. Wendell and I first met in high school during the Jesus Movement days. Wendell and his wife, Pam, had just returned from a trip to Europe, where he had a similar experience. He told me of visiting a historic church and asking the tour guide how many people worshipped there on a Sunday. He was told only a few in a facility that would hold thousands. I had Wendell’s story in mind as I toured empty chapels visited only by tourists. Once Gospel outposts now serve as a museum. I kept thinking, “Is this the future of the American church? This post is entitled The Future of the American Church.
The future of the American church has been on my mind for some time now. I returned early from our trip to Germany as I had been invited to speak at a retreat sponsored by the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention’s state stewardship leaders. My task was to give an update on the state of giving in America. To say I am concerned about the state of giving, let alone how things stand in the church in America, is an understatement. The trends are not our friends. Here are the major trends I gave in my presentation, plus one new trend I should have listed.
The American church must understand and navigate these trends in the next few years.
We are entering into challenging economic times that will put stress on church budgets. Inflation is hurting your bottom line. Last year inflation ran around 8%. That means, to stay even, you had to increase giving by 8%. Every day the headlines tell of companies laying off employees as they prepare for what most believe is an evitable recession. Recessions always impact giving. As I have written before, now is the time to get lean and mean. Work to cut any excesses in your budget, and it is crucial that you build up your cash reserves.
Giving will continue to decline as our key donor group, Boomers, moves off the stage. One of my key points to the Southern Baptist leaders was the fact that their primary donor group, Baby Boomers, is entering retirement. Those faithful givers will still give, but now on fixed incomes, expect anywhere from a 25% to 50% cut in the amount they give. How bad will it be for your church? Do a study on what we call the Over/Under Split. How many of your donors are over 50 years of age compared to how many are under 50? The typical church is heavily weighted with over fifty-year-old donors. I call this the ticking time bomb of the church. By 2030, Boomers will almost all be retired and living on fixed incomes.
Government/Societal pressure will force churches to make difficult decisions. Covid was The Great Reveal for many things. You don’t have to travel far to see the impact of government overreach on churches. You only need to look at how Canada dealt with any pastor or church that attempted to stay open. We fumbled the ball on Covid, allowing government agencies to dictate to us without questioning whether they were correct. We now know we were lied to. How they responded during Covid reveals how they will respond when the next crisis comes our way. We are in a cultural war, and the Church is in the way. We can expect extreme pressure to conform, and we need to be willing to suffer for doing what is right rather than worry about losing our attractional appeal. Are you more concerned about attendance or about standing up for the truth? Few Evangelical leaders have dared to go against the tide. Do you?
I recommend reading Eric Metaxas’s book, Letter to the American Church, to analyze where we are today.
Denominational uncertainty will mean a decline in giving. The Southern Baptists are a fighting bunch. Right now, they are fighting over women pastors. Their fight reminds me of the recent UMC fight over just about everything scriptural. I told the SBC leadership that fights like this always mean declining giving. I can remember interviewing a long-time faithful UMC member a few years ago about making a commitment to her church’s capital campaign. She had been a six-figure donor in the last campaign. She told me, “I fear my church is departing from our Wesleyan heritage. I won’t be giving to this campaign.” It wasn’t the first time a faithful Methodist told me they were withholding contributing because of the conflict within their denomination. The denominational divisions in the SBC will impact their giving.
Let me rephrase my point for those non-Southern Baptist or non-denominationalists. Any uncertainty will mean a decline in giving. Right now, faith in any institution, especially the church, is at its lowest. After three years of Covid craziness and political shenanigans, Americans’ trust has diminished. The economy is another uncertainty, and all these things combined mean a challenge to giving.
Deteriorating facilities built in the last century will cause the demise of many churches. You know how, after a sermon, you remember a point or something you should have said but didn’t? This point is a crucial issue for the SBC and every church wanting to do ministry beyond 2030. Most of our church facilities were built in the last century! Most reading this have a structure on their campus called the “new” this or that. How new is it? And that new facility, built for another century, isn’t equipped for today’s needs. We face multiple millions of dollars in renovation and repurposing challenges surrounding our facilities. This alone will put incredible stress on church budgets, making survival difficult. Now is the time to renovate, rebuild, retool, or whatever you need to prepare your facilities for ministry for the next twenty-five years.
Here is the conclusion I gave the SBC leaders. At my last church, we started a TV ministry. My son was running a camera for us, so I put him on our TV Committee. After his first and last meeting, I popped into his room and asked him what he thought. He replied, “A bunch of guys sitting around a table, talking for an hour, deciding nothing, and being happy about it.”
Then a few months after that, I sat in a staff meeting when my Youth Minister slammed his notebook shut out of the blue and shouted out, “I’m so sick of these meetings! Every week we come in here and talk about the same things over and over, again and again, while doing absolutely nothing!” He then stormed out of the room, leaving the rest of us stunned. In our hearts, we knew he was right. We were a bunch of guys sitting around a desk, talking for an hour, deciding nothing, and being happy about it.
Every week we lose another SBC church. My question for each of you today is, Are you a bunch of guys sitting around a table talking for an hour, deciding nothing and happy about it, or are you willing to start doing something?
I have the same question for you, my reader. We can turn this around, but we must stop talking and act now!
Mark Brooks – The Stewardship Coach