As Pastors Get Older, Churches Start to Die: An Epilogue

by Darren Slade

Having received a larger than expected response to the blog post, “As Pastors Get Older, Churches Start to Die,” I have decided to address a few concerns that have come up. I am personally surprised at some of the negative reactions to what was written, which I thought was quite straightforward (and uncontroversial). What is apparent is that the blog post has struck a nerve with many people, most notably among older ministers and clergy. In one sense, I appreciate the sensitivity surrounding the topic. There appears to be a push in some areas of the church to oust older ministers and recruit younger, more “trendy” leaders. I can see this causing frustration and heartache for a lot of clergy, especially for those who sacrificed their entire youth and devoted their entire life to ministry. It begins to look like a pink slip that reads, “Thank you for your time, but your services are no longer needed. We found someone better.” Older pastors and older congregants start to feel discounted, shoved aside, and forgotten all for the sake of attracting “young blood.”

While this concern is both reasonable and expected, my bewilderment persists. A couple of responses received last week accused me of not valuing the wisdom of older pastors and even suggested that I must think professional pastors should go away completely. Nothing could be further from the truth, and (to be quite honest) I’m not exactly sure how someone could read those things into such a brief post. Another response demanded to know what I plan to do with older pastors, a strange request considering the blog post is meant to have you think about such questions. It’s not my responsibility to have a plan for your aging clergy. Others seem to view the blog as reductionistic, believing it suggests there is only one causative factor for the church’s death. This, too, is not the case. We must not confuse the reporting of one causative factor with the argument for only one causative factor. The post engages in the former, merely reporting about one problem facing the church and, in no way, argues that this is the only or even primary cause for the church’s decline. In fact, you can read an earlier post of mine here where I discuss the myriad of complex factors that lead to church growth and decline.

Nonetheless, the blog never once advocates for retiring, dismissing, or forgetting the elderly. To be blunt: the blog post is only stating the reality of an aging Christian religion whose active church members are getting older and older. It does not portend to have an answer to this problem nor does it take a position on the possible solutions that have (no doubt) been offered by others. And the posting certainly does not suggest there is only one problem and one solution to the demographic crisis facing Christianity.

I personally would like to see churches filled with both young and old leaders, as well as young and old congregants, where the wise help mentor the young and the young give new perspective to the old. The different generations ought to be able to learn from each other. But, again, the blog post does not encourage an extreme approach of “all or nothing” where the church is either all old or all young. The blog post merely brings up a critical point: What do you think will happen to the Christian church if it fails to attract younger generations of believers?

The obvious (and inevitable) answer is that it will die. Period. The blog is not passing judgment on older pastors, older congregations, older ministries, older denominations, or older church buildings. It is merely stating the facts: a pastor, congregation, ministry, denomination, and church cannot leave a lasting legacy behind if all its members retire and expire. To survive into the next generation, they need to at least reach the next generation, but they are unlikely to do so if both the leadership and the congregation look nothing like them! (And not just in age, either, but in terms of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, priorities, politics, epistemology, etc., etc.)

I very much appreciate Jim’s comments to the original post, and I absolutely love the “Tim Apple” reference. But I do believe Jim makes the fatal flaw of extracting too much data from too small a sample of churches. He is right that there are some churches which do quite well with attracting younger generations. The problem is, these are often geographically isolated pockets that do not represent the much larger trend in global Christianity. That is, the majority of churches and congregations are not attracting younger generations. Moreover, what people fail to account for is that churches also fail to retain younger generations. Sure, you might go into a church today and find a fairly good cross-section of different generations. But just wait ten years and you will see that much of the once younger generation stopped showing up to church and the now older congregation has stopped attracting others. Those churches that are flourishing now or are growing numerically are the exception, not the rule, and they often do so only because they haven’t reached the age of retirement yet. Those “popping” ministries will be faced with the same tombstone that other churches are facing today (in other words, the church doors all fade to the same color eventually—grey and wrinkly).

I hope this helps clarify the point of the blog and ease some of the sensitivity surrounding its content. If you do find yourself being offended by the post, ask yourself this question: Are you upset with the data or with the situation you find yourself in? Keep in mind that the blog didn’t invent the demographics; it’s merely presenting them and trying to wake the church up to what the data could mean for the future of the church.