By Bert Crabbe
One of the greatest growing challenges for church leaders is to figure out how to put the resources of older churches into the hands of younger ones.
And when I say older churches, I mean those that have a building but don’t have enough people or income to keep the lights on. And when I say younger churches, I mean those that are bursting at the seams but can’t yet afford to own property.
And yes, I know just because a church is older doesn’t mean it’s dying, and just because it’s younger . . . you get it. But the stereotype is far from fictitious. I know plenty of churches in both categories, and probably so do you.
A widely accepted axiom is that new churches are the best way to reach unbelieving people with the gospel. So when a young church plant is struggling to get off the ground in years one through five, it’s not uncommon for there to be a glut of people who attend but are not yet spiritually mature enough to understand the importance of tithing. This puts many young churches in awkward juxtaposition to the older churches in their area.
First Christian Church of Anywhere (founded 1910) probably has a 100-year-old tradition of feeding the poor and reaching out to its community. The church has paid its dues. So it stings a bit when attendance drops to 30 while across town CrossPointLegacyCenter Christian Church is running 400 in year three.
The lead pastor at CPLCCC, meanwhile, can’t understand why his brother and colleague over at FCC views him with such suspicion.
This is difficult soil from which to grow a symbiotic relationship. But thanks to some openhanded and open-minded folks at an aging church in New York, our younger congregation is poised to reap a lot of the mutual benefits of such an arrangement.
A Box of Chocolates
When our congregation recently found itself about $500,000 light on a building project we’ve undertaken, we looked at our options. The project in question is a build-out of a leased commercial property, so the loan needed to be unsecured. That isn’t an easy pitch to make to the local bank.
We were walking down the path with the usual spate of church-lending entities (all of whom were more than helpful) when we happened across an opportunity to do something really special with a 90-year-old congregation not far from us.
Immanuel Tabernacle (not its real name) contacted us for some help with its Sunday services. Located on a Long Island vacation spot called Fire Island, the church is open only June through August, and there is no full-time pastor. The church’s solution these many years has been to cull the churches of Long Island and New York City to find pastors willing to spend a few days in their church’s one-bedroom apartment in exchange for delivering a Sunday sermon.
The arrangement has worked well for much of the church’s 90-year history, but as of late, the church’s attendance numbers have fallen off significantly. Last summer it struggled to hit 15 people most Sundays, and the church’s leadership knew it was time for a change.
A different pastor every week made for good variety, but the model had no legs. Without a consistent presence in the pulpit, no one felt compelled to attend on a regular basis. To loosely quote Forrest Gump, “It was like a box of chocolates. You never knew what you were going to get.”
Keep It Alive
Immanuel’s leaders (none of whom is younger than 70) had heard of our church through a mutual friend at Orchard Group Church Planting and reached out to us to see if we were interested in helping them keep their church alive.
The conversation that followed was difficult, but necessary. If things were going to change, then things REALLY needed to change. To our surprise and delight, the folks on Immanuel’s management team seemed to understand that the Sunday morning experience would need a major overhaul if the church wanted to reach the vacationing families surrounding their building.
At first we viewed this as a great place to send our staff and their families to vacation for a few days in the summer, and a fantastic opportunity to give young preachers a chance to hone their skill in a safer environment.
Then we learned that even though the nice folks at Immanuel Tabernacle had a dying congregation, they had more than $600,000 in their bank account! Apparently, several wealthy congregants had passed away over the years and left the church a tidy nest egg.
Thus our plan was given wings: “How about you guys loan us $500,000 at a fair interest rate, and to show our gratitude, we’ll help you out with your summer services and do our best to bring new life to your church?”
We had already agreed to help Immanuel with its summer services in exchange for the use of the apartment and a small honorarium for the preacher. So when we asked for a meeting to pitch the new idea, IT’s leaders were understandably suspicious. In point of fact, Immanuel’s leaders thought we wanted their building. Other organizations were circling like vultures over a staggering deer, and IT’s leaders were tired of it. And despite discouraging summer numbers, they were not ready to throw in the towel.
It didn’t take long to convince them that we didn’t want their building, we wanted our building. And if they would be kind enough to help us out in our time of need, it could forge something really beautiful for years to come.
A Legacy Continued
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the following distinctive for younger churches entering such a relationship with older (read: wealthier) churches: this is not a cocky, young, know-it-all church helping its senile old grandfather go for a walk. This is an established, 90-year-old church continuing its legacy of good work by helping out a 5-year-old church that needed a helping hand.
The distinction is huge. The notion that the church to which individual members had given so much could falter is devastating. So our intention is to help these folks understand that their work hasn’t been in vain. They are helping us carry on the good work they started, like a runner at the end of his race passing the baton to his eager teammate.
The process has not been without bumps. Many of these nice folks still have high hopes that only minor tweaks and small adjustments will be necessary to make Sundays palatable to visitors again. And what that calls for is someone who can speak the truth in love.
We have no intention of helping them build a base camp on Mount Delusional. That isn’t helpful or loving. It’s cruel. And in this case, some major changes are called for. For these folks, speaking the truth in love means telling them that Sundays will probably need to feel a lot different than what they’re used to. It involves us humbly asking them to trust us as we move forward. And as they are challenged to trust us, we will be challenged to remember that this is their church and their decision.
In the end, though, I’m optimistic that the resources of an older congregation will marry the passion and energy of a younger one and the result will be something that will really change the landscape of Long Island. And this bodes well for younger churches everywhere that are trying to overcome funding challenges, and older churches everywhere who have great potential to bless the next runners in the race.
Bert Crabbe is senior pastor with True North Community Church in Long Island, New York.