A recent move by the Grove United Methodist Church in Cottage Grove Minnesota has made national news. In an attempt to reach their growing community, the declining church with an average weekly attendance of 25 is being asked to close its doors for an intentional relaunch and replant. But, that’s not the reason the church made national news.
In a message sent to the members, they were given an opportunity to attend another Methodist church some 15 miles away during the process. However, they were also informed that when the church relaunched, it would be different and the changes were intended to reach a different group of people in their community. Specifically, younger people.
The church’s memo sent to the older members asked them to stay away for a period of two years and then seek permission before returning to their previous church. This is their strategy for connecting with the younger families in their community—by keeping the older families away. Jeremy Peters, the new 32 year old pastor explained it this way:
It’s a new thing with a new mission for a new target,” said Peters, “and a new culture.”
Some of the vocal church members are calling it age discrimination. At best, it’s one of the clearest examples of pragmatic church growth techniques of our era. In short, the leadership of the church cannot figure out how to reach their community. They’ve abandoned the sufficient Word of God and turned their back on the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, as we consider such a desperate move by the leadership of a local church —we must think critically about the emphasis that’s often placed on the youth within the church. In many evangelical circles, massive percentages of church budgets are consumed with strategies to attract youth and young families. In a neighboring town where I serve here on the west side of Atlanta, a Baptist church spent loads of money on gaming systems for their youth room. Meanwhile, many of the elderly are overlooked. They’re expected to put their tithe check in the offering plate each month (typically the first week of the month), but beyond that—the church growth strategy doesn’t include them in the slightest degree.
In the church planting world, many young church leaders put a great deal of emphasis on attracting millennials and specific demographics that do not have gray hair or need assistance getting from their car into the building on the Lord’s Day without stumbling. When a church overlooks the elderly, it can cause several big problems within the church family.
A Church Without Wisdom
God’s plan for the church is that it would pursue wisdom. One of the ways that a church gains wisdom is by one generation passing it down to the next generation. This is what we see put on grand display in Titus 2. The older training the younger. So, exactly how much wisdom is found in a church full of coffee snob millennials who are discipling one another—where no gray hair can be found in the building?
If I were involved in a church planting project, I would balance it between younger and older members in order to have wisdom and zeal mixing it up together. This keeps the older young and enables the young to grow stronger along the journey of faith. When we look at the institution of the family, there’s a reason why God didn’t create everyone to be the same exact age. Parents are older than their children for a reason—and that is the core of discipleship.
Proverbs 16:31 – Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.
A Discriminating Mission
Sure, statistically and practically it makes perfect sense. If you want to attract younger people, keep the older people away. However, that’s not what Jesus commissioned his disciples to do. He didn’t say, “Go and reach young families…” He said, “Go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:16-20). A disciple is someone who follows Christ.
One of the sad realities is that statistically older people are closer to eternity (according to the numbers and based on the mere scale of the average life expectancy rule). When you consider how many elderly unbelievers make up a single community, it should cause us to weep that they’re rarely targeted with the gospel. They’re more often overlooked and forgotten as local churches do everything under the sun to reach younger families.
Within the church, the elderly are given the command to persevere in the faith to the very end. Yet, far too often local churches are looking for ways to attract new younger families while forgetting that the elderly people among their local church need help and encouragement as they seek to finish well.
A Church with a Lack of Funerals
What happens when a local church targets younger families or plants exclusively with young people in mind? Such churches learn how to celebrate at weddings and the birth of new babies, but they rarely watch an older member persevere in the faith to the very end. They know what it’s like to dance at a wedding, but they don’t know what it’s like to weep at a funeral of an old man who spent much of his life serving the Lord in the life of their local church. They don’t know what it’s like to stand over the casket of a man with deep wrinkles and gray hair and praise God for his faithfulness.
In an age where youthfulness has nearly been turned into an idol—the church of Jesus Christ should reject such ideas. The value of older members must be something that is instilled into the minds of the young children among us. We must disciple them well and teach them the value of learning from the older members among our family of faith. An immature church is one that ignores the elderly.
Dear church—don’t overlook and undervalue the elderly among you.
Today, many pastors are praying about how to lead their churches through this COVID-19 season of confusion, panic, and even public hysteria. This pandemic response is complicated on various different layers including medical, economic, and social situations that the entire world is seeking to navigate.
As the new language of social distancing is being employed by health officials—President Trump has announced a request for all mass gatherings to basically be eliminated. The new circle has been reduced to the size of a large family unit—only 10 people. Much of the media attention has been centered upon the gatherings of bars, restaurants, and schools—this season presents a great challenge to local churches as well. So, now the leaders of local churches are seeking to lead their congregations in such a way that allows for ministry connections without physical overlap and contact in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Stop Playing the Shame Game
First, I would encourage people to simply stop playing the shame game online. If you honestly believe that churches not gathering during this virus pandemic is a violation of Hebrews 10:25, please keep that to yourself and stop seeking to shame people by a misuse of the biblical text. It’s essential for Christians to comply with federal and state requirements on mass gatherings—as well as other state and federal laws. That’s our calling according to Romans 13. Furthermore, this is not a situation where Christians are being told to not worship God and that they must turn their back on the gospel in order to bow to Caesar. This is a unique season that requires us to use common sense, wisdom, and submission to our authorities—the very authorities that God has implemented for our good.
Communication, Communication, Communication…
One of the keys to effective leadership is communication. One of the ways to ensure that a church is functioning properly and efficiently is through clear communication. Unfortunately, during a season of disconnect, it’s difficult to get the word out to everyone. It’s likely that the very best attempt to send out church-wide e-mails about the modified ministry schedules misses a specific age demographic who doesn’t use online communication such as social media and e-mail. This is where communication matters greatly. The church must do everything possible to talk, listen, and help serve the entire body—even if that means by taking time to pick up the phone and call people to be sure everyone is on the same page.
One of the ways that we are addressing the ministry adjustments is by sending out a physical letter to the entire church family so that everyone receives a copy and can understand how we are going to function for the next few weeks. They say that in the real estate world everything revolves around location, location, location. In ministry, it’s often communication, communication, and communication. During this season of disconnect, it would be wise to encourage deacons to make phone calls to families in the church to check on the members and especially the elderly. Furthermore, it would be wise for pastors to do the same—while maintaining a study routine that may be altered due to online service preparation.
Technology is a Common Grace of our God
Just as God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45), he has allowed the advancement of information technology which can be harnessed by the Church for God’s glory. This means that tools are available that can greatly help the local church to remain connected in a season of disconnect. Some of those tools include the following:
- Zoom: This service will allow Sunday school classes and small groups to meet together, even if it’s through the mode of screen based technology that employs the use of web cams and keyboards. There is a way for non-tech people to call into the meeting and listen as well.
- YouTube: This is an easy tool for churches to stream their services live and the feed can be placed on the church’s website and social media channels in order for more exposure. You can also use YouTube to location really good songs to use during family worship on a regular basis or to bridge the gap during this social distancing season.
- Online Hymnal: You can make use of the .pdf version of the Hymns of Grace which can be used for families and small groups (of 10 or less) to sing together during a season of fear and darkness—which is a vital part of Christian worship.
- Text Group / Conversations: You can use your smart phone technology to setup a text conversation among your small group or Sunday school class that will enable everyone to communicate and encourage one another during this complicated ministry season. There is also another technology called Group Me that can help here too.
- Online Giving: Churches can harness the power of online giving platforms to help fund the ongoing budget and ministry needs of the church during this season. Today’s solutions are user friendly and super simple to setup. We use one through our G3 app which is fueled by Subsplash online giving. We use another service through our local church called Simplify Give, and within a couple of days a church can have it setup and functional.
- Physical Letter: This is an old technology, but there is great power in the pen that is often missed in a casual e-mail. Take time to write to people within the church! Teach your younger children the importance of mailing letters to encourage the elderly and your leaders during this time.
The church is God’s plan for his people. We are called the body of Christ and the body has a functionality that is greatly disrupted by disconnect. It’s extremely important for leaders to listen, pray, and use the necessary technological tools that will enable the local church to remain connected, serving, worshipping, and caring for one another during an indefinite time period of disconnect.
The church needs one another. We need to encourage one another (Heb. 10:24-25) and we must serve one another (1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11). When we are being told to keep distance between ourselves and to disconnect from gatherings in order to prevent the spread of this virus—we must labor all the more to overcome such challenges in order to encourage one another, build-up one another, and worship our God together (even when we are not in the same room)—remembering that we are one body made up of many members (Rom. 12:4).
May the watching world see the Church of Jesus thrive during a season of unrest and public panic. May we demonstrate resolve rather than fear. May we trust in our sovereign God who created us and sustains us—along with the entire universe. There is nothing too big—or too small for that matter—that God cannot control. There is nothing, including the COVID-19 virus that escapes his eyes and nothing too powerful to overcome his governing providence. It may remain a mystery for us, but we can trust that God is working this whole thing out for his glory.
May the Lord teach us a valuable lesson regarding the necessity of the local church and the importance of assembly during a time where we are being forced to disassemble.
The thought of a modern disease sweeping across the world and claiming large percentages of cities like historic plagues sometimes causes fear to swell in the hearts of people. As we’ve been hearing about a new virus since December of 2019, the spread has consistently moved from China throughout the world. This week President Donald Trump, while addressing the United States regarding the disease, instilled a firm travel ban that goes into effect tonight in order to prevent further outbreaks of the disease—COVID-19, otherwise known as the Coronavirus.
We are currently at the pandemic stage of the disease as it has now transitioned into an international epidemic—crossing the ocean on planes and boats to various different nations around the world. As we watch the NBA suspend their season indefinitely as a result of a player on the Utah Jazz who has tested positive, major conferences and events cancelled, schools closing, and many businesses going to remote location operations—what should be the response of the church? Should we panic? Should we be overcome with fear?
In the 14th century, the Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease that spread through wild rodents and fleas where they lived in great numbers and density and in close proximity to humans. It spread far and wide resulting in the death of 50 million people in the 14th century, or 60 percent of Europe’s entire population.
When the Black Death raised its nasty head again in 1527 in Germany, many people began to panic. People were fleeing for their lives. Yet, Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, decided to stay in their home. It wasn’t a stubborn response to the need to evacuate, but a loving response fueled by love and sustained by faith in their sovereign God. Rather than running for the hills, they turned their home into a makeshift hospital. They took in the sick, cared for them, demonstrated genuine Christian hospitality, and risked their own lives in the process. During this crisis, their son almost died.
As Luther and Katie ministered to people, they watched some recover and they watched many cross over the precipice of life into eternity. Undoubtedly many of these people Luther had ministered to in the city during his lectures and sermons. The pain would be severe. The stench of the Black Death was all throughout Wittenberg and the German landscape. Luther was not only standing up to the powerful Roman Catholic Church as he exposed their false doctrine, but he likewise stood strong in the midst of a horrible disease.
It was with this backdrop that Luther penned the words to “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” which is one of the most famous hymns in the history of the church. As he faced the plague, looked at the black death surrounding him, and contemplated the frailty of his own life (and the lives of his family)—he thought about the walls of the castle and how he once found refuge. Then he considered the words of Psalm 46 and applied the grand truths of God’s sovereignty to his dark situation.
A mighty Fortress is our God,
A Bulwark never failing;
Our Helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
No matter what you face today as you journey through this world with devils filled who threaten to undo you—you can walk with confidence that your God is big. “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). No matter what trial you face or what challenge is presented before you as the news media continues to talk about the present day pandemic of the COVID-19, remember to lean on the theology of the Bible and find comfort and peace that passes all understanding in the God who is big, strong, and serves as our Rock and our Refuge! If God is for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?
Remember that as you face news reports and hear about the spread of a new virus into your nation, state, and even close to your neighborhood—the proper posture of a Christian is resolve and confidence in God rather than fear and panic. That doesn’t mean that as a Christian you should not take precautions or use common sense, but it does mean that we should have confidence in our God in the face of trials. Our God is our fortress.
Remember that when watching reports and listening to the media, it’s important to not be manipulated by overreactions and political tactics. When comparing the COVID-19 to the flu, the numbers are nowhere close to the same. The 2017-2018 flu resulted in 959,000 hospitalizations and 61,099 deaths in the United States alone. Current numbers for the COVID-19 virus are at 5,000+ worldwide with the most susceptible are those with underlying conditions, weak immune systems, and the elderly.
As we navigate this present day pandemic, let the Church of Jesus Christ shine in the midst of this crisis. Dear fellow Christian, may your theology be put on display in a world gripped by fear. Common sense and great resolve in a sovereign God is what the watching world should see from the Church of Jesus. The watching world should see the Church elevate our trust in our sovereign God in the midst of a world gripped by fear and given to panic. We can pray for the medical community as they research and seek ways to address this virus from a scientific and medical perspective. We can use logical tactics that will help avoid the spread of germs such as washing hands and limiting personal contact. Ultimately, Luther’s bulwark must be ours too.
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
Psalm 46:1–3; 6-7 – God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah…The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah
In a recent article, I pointed out why the local church should not overlook or undervalue the elderly. Today, I want to address another group that can be overlooked or in some cases the basis of frustration within the local church. Interestingly enough, it’s the young ones—sometimes even the youngest of all.
We are living in a time in history where children are undervalued and often avoided. “When Virgin Voyages debuts its first ship in 2020, it will sail without a key market component for most cruise lines: young families.” While cruise ships and restaurants want to avoid young families and young children—the church of Jesus Christ should be the exact opposite.
Perhaps you’ve attended a service recently where young children distracted you. The more baby noises you heard, the more you found yourself not listening to the sermon. Perhaps the baby a few feet from you caused you a great deal of frustration. Why should we value the babies in the room and the young children among us?
Perhaps the foundational reason for children to be among the church and among adults often within the life of the church is so that they can look, see, hear, and observe the way the church functions on a normative basis. This is essential in their formation. If they are sequestered away on every occasion to a special “fun” place for children each time they arrive on the church campus—they will likely find “big church” quite stale, boring, and unattractive once they graduate from kid church.
Although I’m not one to draw a hard line in the sand on children’s ministries, I do believe we must place a great value upon the children among us. I do think churches that offer special classes for young children on the Lord’s Day can still put value on the gathered church with intentionality—especially if you have an evening service. To be frank—children need to hear the gospel boldly preached and they need to interact with adults other than their parents as they observe faithful men and women persevering in the faith to the very end. When Jim who greets families at the front door of the church dies, the children in the church should know that he’s more than a kind man who opens the door. He’s a member. He’s actively involved in weekly worship. He’s a man that loved Jesus. He’s a man who was in some way involved in influencing the children in the church and for that reason—children should hear of his faithfulness and perseverance at his funeral.
Was Jesus Frustrated with Children?
I remember when I went to pastor a small country church as a seminary student. The church body was small. The church building was small, and there was no special ministries for our children. I had been accustomed to the main worship service being a somewhat controlled environment. My first Sunday proved to be anything but a controlled environment. A couple of young mothers were on the back row with their children who were making all sorts of noises, crawling beneath the pews, and there were numerous attempts to keep them quiet. I recall being a bit distracted. However, soon enough, I became accustomed to the sounds of children and it was not a source of frustration for me.
Consider how Jesus approached children. Although the disciples believed that the parents and their children who were coming to Jesus would be an added burden or perhaps a distraction—Jesus insisted on giving the children attention. We find the following account in Matthew:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away (Matthew 19:13–15).
Notice that Jesus was not frustrated by the presence of the children. He was not distracted by them. He made it very clear to his disciples that they were important and he demonstrated that by how he gave time and attention to them. Consider the important lesson we can learn from Jesus.
Striking a Good Balance
In every church, there will be various different unique circumstances. For instance, we are experiencing a baby boom in our church presently. With such a boom, there’s a need for both service and patience with the young families. As we consider the life of the church and how the church functions—it’s important to strike a good balance among the parents of the young children and the church who is covenanting to care for them properly.
Balance as a Parent: Sure, the church should welcome you and your children into the church or discipleship class, but keep in mind baby noises are different than lengthy crying spells that could endure for 10-15 minutes at a time. For the church to hear and for the time to be profitable—there might be a time where you need to excuse yourself from the church or class in order to settle your child. But, if that’s the case, don’t be shamed into staying away!
Balance as a Church Member: Expect wiggles, potty breaks, and the occasional outburst of a young child. It happens in your home (or did once upon a time), so you can expect it to happen on the church campus too. It may not be your conviction to have your children with you during the worship service or small group discipleship class. Some churches may offer various discipleship classes or nurseries for younger children and you may choose to use such resources for your children. However, don’t look down upon mothers who have different convictions. Furthermore, don’t become frustrated with children and babies near you during a worship service. Consider the sound of babies among your church as a sign of health and the blessing of God.
In short, the church must learn to show love and patience toward one another within the family of faith. To become frustrated and divisive over non-essential matters in the church is one quick way to divide a church and stiffen spiritual growth among the members. Make sure your church values young families, young mothers, and young children. In a culture where young families are often shamed into sitting in the corner of a restaurant away from the normal customers and during a time where cruise ships view children as problematic and unprofitable—we as the church must follow in the footsteps of Jesus and demonstrate a great care and affection for the little ones among us.
For many years, the light of the gospel was veiled beneath Rome’s liturgy that was led by the Latin tongue even when people didn’t understand what was being communicated. The worship of the Roman Catholic Church was filled with obscure phraseology and polished sentences that served as word salads at best while never providing true nourishment of the soul. In short, the Roman Catholic Church withheld the gospel from the people and it was the Reformation that released God’s Word from the dark dungeon of man-centered religion.
We look back beyond what was taking place in the days of the sixteenth century in Europe to the ministry of the apostle Paul. His resume speaks about his high education and training as a pharisee. Paul was no dummy to say the least. With a high pedigree regarding education and a very advanced vocabulary and command over human language—this brilliant pastor-theologian refused to speak over the heads of the people. Instead, he spoke to the people. Listen to the words of Paul as he wrote to the church at Corinth.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
Paul was full of wisdom and had the unique capability of using lofty speech if necessary, but he chose to set aside his capabilities in order to accomplish something of far greater importance. Rather than inviting people to praise his vocabulary and knowledge as a theologian, he wanted to use human speech to direct people to the wisdom, beauty, and majesty of God. Paul’s motive was not to have the people become impressed with him, instead, he desired for the church to be impressed with the Christ who died on the cross. It must likewise be noted that it’s often the mark of a skilled preacher who can articulate grand truths in a simple and yet accurate manner.
Far too many preachers seek to unleash their theologically robust and esoteric vocabulary upon the church without considering the common man and woman among the church who may not get it. In other words, it’s best for the preacher to put the cookies on the bottom shelf as often as possible in order to deliver the truth and unleash God’s gospel.
According to Paul, his words were in “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” and the overall purpose was that the faith of the church would rest in the power of God rather than the wisdom of men. Preachers are not poets. Pastors are not philosophers. It is our duty to make sure the message of Christ is clearly articulated and powerfully communicated so that men, women, boys, and girls might have their faith rooted and grounded in Christ alone.
We must remember, it’s not the eloquence of the preacher, the clever cliches in his sermon, or enticing words of man’s wisdom that brings people to faith—it’s the power of the gospel. Remember, Charles Spurgeon learned that lesson as he walked into the Crystal Palace test the acoustics. Listen to Spurgeon tell the story of what happened that day:
In 1857, a day or two before preaching at the Crystal Palace, I went to decide where the platform should be fixed; and, in order to test the acoustic properties of the building, cried in a loud voice, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” In one of the galleries, a workman, who knew nothing of what was being done, heard the words, and they came like a message from heaven to his soul. He was smitten with conviction on account of sin, put down his tools, went home, and there, after a season of spiritual struggling, found peace and life by beholding the Lamb of God.
Just a few days after that event, 23,654 would gather in that same venue to hear Spurgeon preach. However, just days prior, only one verse was thundered from the pulpit and God used it to convert a lost man. The converted man would tell that story upon his deathbed. The next time you’re preparing a sermon or a lesson to teach in the context of the local church—think about how you can simplify the message and make sure that it’s clearly understood by everyone who will be in attendance. That includes both the carpenter and the surgeon—the little boy and the elderly woman. When you prepare to preach or teach, think about your goal of causing people to be impressed with God rather than you and your gifts.
Today when you walk into St. Pierre in Geneva where John Calvin served as pastor, written on the walls of the cathedral are these words, “post tenebras lux” which means, “After darkness, light.” Our ministries need to be known as ministries of light that point people to the beauty, wonder, and majesty of the God who saves sinners.