Death Tsunami: Church Decline in the Millennial World

In this 12 month series we are inviting both church leaders and church planters to learn to lead with foresight and imagination in the radical way of the servant Jesus.  We will share with you examples of those who are already imagining and creating new forms of change-making, life-making and church-making.

Examples of Past Action

In my first two posts in 2017 I have shared two examples of how of millennial leaders have not only learned to anticipate a new opportunities but also create new innovative forms of change-making to respond to urgent social challenges where they live.
The very good news, that I celebrate in Live Like You Give A Damn! Join the Change-making Celebration, is that since the millennial generation is the first digital generation, they are much more aware and concerned about issues of economic, racial and environmental justice.  The even better news is that more of them want to invest their lives in serious change-making than earlier generations.
That is why a number of corporations are adding a social mission to their businesses to attract and hire millennials. That is also why my first two posts in 2017 are about millennials who are showing all of our churches how to shift from offering token handouts to those in need to creating new forms of serious change-making that enables them to become more self reliant.
In my January post you met Leah Driscoll who discovered that the Twin Cities where she lives is experiencing a growing “food desert” of almost 300,000 people.  Remember she and her team responded by creating a new social enterprise called Mobile Markets.  They are launching a fleet of old municipal buses that have been transformed into mobile markets to respond to this growing challenge to make reasonably priced food available.
In February you met Jensen Roll, who is a social entrepreneur, concerned by the accelerating costs of housing for the working poor.  Remember that he and his friends are working to create a Tiny House Village of 50 units in Burlington, North Carolina?
In this post I want to shift from innovative change-making to  issue a wake-up call to both church leaders and church planters.  I want to urge readers to wake up not only to the accelerating needs of our neighbors locally and globally.  However, I also want to sound an urgent wake-up call to the accelerating decline of the church in the United States, in large part because the alarmingly rapid rate at which we are losing those under 35 from so many of our churches.
[Tweet “I want to urge readers to wake up not only to the accelerating needs of our neighbors locally and globally.”]

An Aging Church and the ‘Death Tsunami’

For a number of years I have enjoyed working with and learning from a number of denominational executives in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia as I have worked as a consultant to anticipate change in both our societies and our churches.  In the early 90’s I gave the leaders in the American Baptist Church the welcome news that they would be the first mainline denomination to become richly multicultural.  Within a decade that forecast became a reality.
Today I don’t have a lot of good news to bring to the Western church or the church in the US.  I also remember in the early 90’s that many evangelicals sincerely believed that the graying and declining denominations would only afflict those in mainline denominations. Today even the Southern Baptist Church is getting a serious taste of graying and declining in a growing number of their congregations.
As we race towards 2027 mainline churches are graying and declining at a concerning rate of 2% to 5%. However, this rate is not constant.  Since so many members are in the 60 to 90 age range this rate of change  is likely to suddenly accelerate in what one Methodist leader calls a “death Tsunami.”
As I mentioned a growing number of evangelical churches are also graying and declining.  For many years regular church attendance hovered around 40%.  Today the best research I can locate places it closer to 17% and starting to more rapidly decline.

The Millennial Question

One of the most alarming trends is the projected rate at which growing  number of millennials (18 to 35) are disaffiliating from the church according to Pew Research.  I suspect we may have a decade to turn this big ship around or otherwise experience a sharp decline.
I am not only concerned about graying and declining churches I am also increasingly concerned, as I am sure many readers are, with the significant reduction in time and resources that American churches are able to invest in local and global efforts in community empowerment.
[Tweet “I suspect we may have a decade to turn this big ship around or otherwise experience a sharp decline.”] And yet millennials are much more active seeking to improve the lot of their most vulnerable neighbors. As a consequence a number of millennials tell me they aren’t inclined to join an organization where 75% to 90% of the time and money is expended on those “under the tent.”
Is it possible our congregations could begin to develop a more compassionate focus by spending more time with our young people?  Through those relationships, we could begin to share their concern for others, and we could reintegrate them into the family.  Some churches could actually start running social enterprise competitions like Colonial Church incubator which enabled Leah Driscoll to launch a mobile market nearly a dozen other social enterprises.
[Tweet “Through those relationships, we could begin to share their concern for others, and we could reintegrate them into the family”] I am very impressed by the church planting of the Evangelical Covenant Church in America.  They do more to intentionally create churches that are much more outwardly focused than any other denominational church planting effort I have come across.  First, even though the roots of the Covenant Church are from Sweden half of all their new church plants are multicultural because they want to share life and faith with all of God’s people and prepare for our richly multicultural future.
All of these new Covenant church plants seek to be more authentically mission-oriented by deliberately reducing the amount of time and money they spend on “the gathered” so they are able to invest more in local and global initiatives. For example, Tim Morey has planted 10 churches in as many years.  He is now pastor of New Life Covenant in Torrance, California.
The last I talked with Tim, he told me that through hard work their church plant they have been able to free-up 30% of their time and money to invest in local and both global initiatives. One way they do this is to keep their overhead costs at a minimum.  These Covenant plants intentionally operate by restricting their gathering times to weekly worship in a rented facility and small missional home groups that primarily focus on how to make difference in the lives of their neighbors and neighborhoods that I suspect would appeal to many millennials.
Is it possible for both established churches and new church plants to no longer call themselves “missional” unless they set real goals for 2017 to 2022 significantly increase the amount of time and money our congregations and members invest in serious change-making? Is it possible they could also take the radical step of not only inviting the creative ideas for social innovations from not only the young that are still in the building but also those in the neighborhood?

About the Author

Tom Sine

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