Remember the joke? It’s an old one. I heard it again twice in two months, in Ethiopia and then in Columbus, Indiana.
Two guys are walking barefoot in the forest. They meet a bear planning his lunch. One guy starts to put on his running shoes. The other explains: “You’re never going to outrun the bear.” The guy with his shoes: “I don’t have to. I just have to outrun you.”
The pastor in the Columbus Learning Community said:
“What most churches are trying to do is ‘outrun’ and ‘out program’ other churches to reach a smaller and smaller segment of our communities that still looks to our churches for Good News. As long as you can do better, you might attract more people…for a few more years…but most will lose.”
As a result of this failed strategy, most churches are declining in numbers and increasing in average age.
The fastest growing segments on the religious landscape in America are the “nones” and the “dones.”
“Nones” have no religious preference. They’re pressing toward 50% of the youngest of millennials.
“Dones” are former members. Oftentimes they were lay leaders…and they’re done. Great capacity, but tired of church politics, structure, limited impact. They decided they’re better off without organized religion.
Most church members and most church leaders are content with a vision of competing with sister congregations for a shrinking pool of interested participants in the United States. Especially if they seem to be “winning,” while the next 20 churches around them are being eaten by the bears.
Few give thought to the strategic challenge before us in the United States. It’s a challenge for which the average Christian in the average church is desperately ill prepared.
It would seem that the giving over of the ministry, and more fundamentally the mission of God, to paid professionals who do the work is showing less and less promise as the world becomes more and more unwelcoming of established Christianity. It has crushed the pioneering “sent-ness” entrusted to the Church. It’s limited ministry to preaching and teaching and pastoral care. And it’s made great listeners but unengaged participants.
So, God bless you if your church is putting on its shoes and outrunning the 20 other churches around you that are struggling and declining. But what are you doing today to prepare for five or ten years from now when the “nones” and the “dones” have caught up to you?
And, if you already know you can’t successfully out run the 20 churches around you… you’re ahead of the game! What are you and the leaders in your church waiting for?
You are a leader!
It’s our place to take responsibility for our current reality. It’s our place to take responsibility for the changes we need to make.
Through much of the first four centuries A.D. there were no buildings and not much in the way of programs. Plenty of bears. And the church grew from a few to a majority of the Roman empire.
Maybe it’s time we remember farther back when we consider our future!