Churches like any kind of organizations have a natural life cycle. An organization starts up enthusiastically with a reason for its existance, gathering resources (people and money) to fulfill a mission. As the organization stabilizes, it settles into a set of routines to run for a number of years. Over time, and it’s just a matter of time, those systems and processes begin to falter and not work like it used to in the “good ol’ days.” Practically everything changes over time, even if the organization resists. The organization either innovates, finding a new way to do things in the new world & new environment, or implodes, finding the problems insurmountable, using up way more energy on infighting rather than innovating, holding on to stay the same and resisting change. Resources get used up and inevitably run out. The organization reaches its end and clicks on “shut down.” (cf. George Bullard @ The Columbia Partnership has the most extensive research on church life cycle and stages of development)
That’s normal. And that’s okay. Organizations, churches, businesses, governments. They come and go. They don’t have to last forever.
Consider this: What’s the expiration date on your church? (via Chuck Warnock) And it doesn’t matter if the church is organized formally as a church church or informally as a house church aka simple church. Frank Viola commented on the average life span of a house church: “most churches survive from 6 months to two years.” (via)
My guess is that a typical church (organized as a 501c3 with pastoral staff) would have a life span of 50 years, give or take a decade.
(I wasn’t able to find sources to substantiate this per se.) You know the typical narrative: a church plant to launch for reaching young families. A few get a head-start by emerging out of a youth ministry or college ministry, but most church plants seem intent on reaching “giving units” for its organizational sustainability. [update 2/25/11 “The average church that makes it 7 years [has a life span of] 80 years.” via George Bullard] [“… the average life of a church is about the same as that of the average human: 70 years.” Russell Burrill via MinistryMagazine.org]
Given time, those young families have children that grow up, and parents that grow old. 50 years later, those 20-somethings become 70-somethings and the adult children have scattered to the winds in a mobile globalized world. The economic engine that kept the organized church running slowly grinds to a halt. Exception noted for the churches that happen to be located where the next generation would want to live, and the economic environment of that locality stays vibrant for another generation.
What do you hear from older people nearing their homegoing to be with the Lord forever? They’d like to continuing worshipping God. They’d like their children to worship God. What that looks like may be different from generation to generation.
And that’s okay. Let’s not demonize those differences. I think older people should be thanked for their life of sacrifice and worship, investing in the church, seeking to live a God-honoring life the best they knew how. And their death can be celebrated and honored with dignity.
Take a look at Acts 13:36, “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers.” What if it could be said that Anytown Bible Church served its generation and closed its doors.
But that’s not the end of the story. God’s story continues throughout human history, from generation to generation. It just looks different from generation to generation.
All the investments of resources in the real estate of church buildings can be put to greater Kingdom use. Church buildings don’t have to be liquidated and sold off to become condos or lofts, or leveled to be a parking lot. Church buildings can be gifted to the next generation of church plants that are starting up to serve a new generation! Recycle those buildings! The older generation can be honored with their own worship services and a shepherding pastor that cares for them. The younger generation can worship God and reach their generation with relevant ministry so they too can experience the goodness of God.
Now that’s a compelling vision and a big win for the Kingdom of God!! What’ll it take for denominations and older churches to catch a vision for this?
[photo credit: freefoto]