I almost got hit by a car when I was a kid. I was riding my bike, standing up on the pedals with no hands on the handlebars (bad idea), and I started to cross an intersection without looking both ways (another bad idea). By God’s grace, I narrowly avoided being struck by a car. You always think it can’t happen to you. But I did a funeral once for a 13-year-old boy who was struck by a car while he rode his moped beside a busy highway. It happens. It’s happened to others. It can happen to you.
A year and a half ago I never dreamed I’d get COVID just after Easter, but I did. And so have lots of other people. Just when we start to think it can’t happen to us, we get sick, or somebody we know gets COVID. It happens. It’s happened to others. It can happen to you.
Rae Anne and I met with a man in Franklin last November who used to attend the First Baptist Church there. That church began in 1866. But last year it closed its doors for the last time. This happens to churches, all too often these days. Lifeway Research analyzed data from 34 Protestant denominations and groups and estimated that 4,500 churches closed their doors in 2019. I couldn’t find numbers for 2020. The parallels between the First Baptist Church of Franklin and ours are uncomfortably close. We have the same name. Our church began in the 1800s, too, in 1888. And our church has dwindled. Will there come a point when we close our doors for the last time? It happens. It’s happened to other churches. It can happen to us.
The Pastor Appreciation dinner you gave for Rae Anne and me last October was wonderful. These things always make me feel uncomfortable. I told several people, “I’m not ungrateful, I’m just embarrassed.” You gave us a lot of nice cards and gifts, and you said some very kind, affirming things to us. But as I looked around the Fellowship Hall that day, I noticed something very sobering: except for two children and one teenager, nearly everyone there was 60 years old or older.
People keep finding reasons to leave our church. Some of the reasons are good. Some of the reasons aren’t so good. Some of the reasons are surprising, because God has opened new doors and led people in new paths. Some of the reasons were petty. Some of the reasons are a mystery: we don’t know why some people stopped coming.
I’ve seen moderate growth in each of the churches I’ve pastored in my ministry…except here. Over the past 24 years, we have baptized over 80 people, and nearly 180 people have joined our church by transfer. But only a handful of those people have stayed. We also have a fair number of visitors each year. But most of them don’t come back. And during this same 24 years, I’ve done over 200 funerals. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of the people I have buried have been faithful members of our church.
Now there are some wonderful exceptions to what I’m about to say. You know who you are, and we thank God for you. But in general terms, beginning with my own “Baby Boomer” generation, the younger generations in our church have been missing in action, unwilling to attend or to serve in the church faithfully. The older generation has died or is dying off. For the most part, the younger generations have not stepped forward to take up the work. And for the most part, no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get younger people to commit or be involved.
It is not time for me to retire yet. The money isn’t quite there (that’s why we were meeting with the man in Franklin). And frankly, there were times during my vacation last November that I was bored to tears. You can only sleep in and relax so much. Our daughter Amy told me, “Daddy, I can’t imagine you without a pulpit.” And she’s right. I need to keep preaching, here or somewhere. It’s a deep, inner compulsion. Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16)
But here’s what I’ve been wrestling with: Do I step aside while the church still has the financial strength to call another pastor? If I did, where would I go? Churches aren’t exactly clamoring for 65-year-old pastors with white hair. But I also know God has promised to provide for Rae Anne and I, and frankly, He’s done that wonderfully all our lives.
Understand: I really don’t want to go. We really don’t want to go. Honestly, we can’t imagine our lives without you (well, most of you). And I don’t think you want us to go (well, most of you).
And I’m not at all sure it would make much difference if somebody else came, even someone younger with their own children. I’ve talked with other pastors about this. Other churches have called younger men with younger wives and their own children and teenagers, and growth has not always been the result. Sometimes changes are made that alienate the older folks who are the current backbone of the church, financially and otherwise.
But the truth is this: The next ten years for our church is going to look very different as our older members “graduate” to Heaven. And as pastor of this church, I feel it’s my responsibility to raise this question to the church: Do I need to step aside so that the church might seek another pastor in hopes that things will be different?
But let me give a word of caution: It would be a fatal mistake to respond to our current situation by thinking that if you only trade pastors, then it’ll all be better. When I came here in 1997, one man smiled at me and announced to a group of people, “Here’s the man who’s going to fix everything.” And I said to him then before them all, “Don’t say that!” It’s only God who can fix a church. And if we change pastors and don’t change our hearts, it won’t make any difference at all.
I believe that pastors and churches ought to be able to humbly, lovingly walk through decisions like this together. This in spite of the fact that the last time I raised a question like this to a church I pastored, one man wanted to hand me my hat and escort me from the premises right then! But I’m willing to risk that. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think we need to seek God about this together.
In fact, I believe we need to seek God as a church as never before. I believe we need to seek God as never before for the future of our church. That man in Franklin that we met with was in talks with the mayor and with the realtors who are selling the building and property of First Baptist Church of Franklin. And he is begging them not to let a nightclub go in there.
I don’t want to see a warehouse go into these buildings. Or anything else.
I read Jeremiah and Lamentations over my November vacation break, and I reluctantly realized that God had called Jeremiah to be the last prophet to Jerusalem and Judah. God told Jeremiah that He was tearing down what he had built up. It broke Jeremiah’s heart, but he was faithful.
There have been 21 senior pastors of First Baptist Church of Linton. I’m the 21st. I don’t want to be the last.
I’m still the pastor of this church. I won’t be forever. I have often prayed that, when it is God’s time for me to leave (whether this year, next year, or five years from now, or whenever), that God would write a good and happy ending to our time together. I still pray that.
But as your pastor, I am calling this church to prayer. I am calling this church to pray. We need to seek God. We need to seek God’s guidance. He said He’d give it to us. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5). And we need to seek God’s grace. What I want, and what I believe we can experience, is for us to come to a unity of purpose as we seek God together over the next few months.
Recently I read Ezekiel. I have prayed through and wept over Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 37, how the breath of God caused a valley of dry bones to live again. And I have prayed through and wept over God’s promises in chapters 38 and 39 to restore Israel and pour out His Spirit upon them. How very much I want this church to live again, and for God to pour out His Spirit upon us!
But one final thing: I don’t think God’s primary concern is the survival of our church. Remember, thousands of churches close every year. God’s primary concern is for His glory, and the lifting up of His name. It ought to be ours, too. So we need to seek God’s glory, and really mean it when we say…
Soli Deo Gloria! “For the glory of God alone!”