By Kent Fillinger
Since transformation is a main theme of this issue, I decided to explore three trends that are reshaping culture and will likely re-create the look and feel of our churches. My goal is not to stir up controversy but to change the questions we are asking in order to spark new conversations among church leaders.
The Single Situation
“Half of Americans ages 18 and older were married in 2016, a share that has remained relatively stable in recent years but is down 9 percentage points over the past quarter-century,” according to the article “8 Facts about Love and Marriage in America” posted on the Pew Research Center website last February. This means the number of singles is rising and that soon there likely will be more single adults than married adults in the U.S.
Contrast this with a Barna study that found “less than a quarter of active churchgoers are single (23%)” (from “A Single Minded Church,” by Joyce Chiu, February 9, 2017). I’ve been a “single-again” dad for the last nine years. I’m in that small minority of single adults who is active in church every week.
But the megachurch I attend, like most churches of any size I’ve experienced, is geared toward reaching the nuclear family—dad and mom and their kids. Singles aren’t thought of at all, based on my observations and experiences.
Not a week goes by that our 30-something lead pastor doesn’t reference his wife in one of his sermon illustrations. But I couldn’t tell you the last time I heard any reference to single adults or when even an attempt was made to apply God’s truths to the realities of a single adult. It’s no wonder most singles skip church!
Did you know November 11 is “Singles’ Day” in China? It’s an unofficial holiday chosen because that date, 11/11, resembles solitary stick figures. The holiday started in 1993 at Nanjing University, where some students came together to think of an initiative to celebrate singledom. It’s also the largest online shopping day in the world, generating billions of dollars in sales! Maybe the church could learn a lesson from this and begin to recognize the value and impact singles can make when we choose to invite and engage them.
Questions I’m Asking: Does it make sense for the church to ignore half of the U.S. adult population? Does your church need a marriage, relationships, or family sermon series every year where you feebly assert that the messages apply to “everyone”? Why not select about a half-dozen examples of single adults in the Bible and teach about their lives and faith? How many singles—including dads or moms who’ve never been married—are serving on our church staffs? Remember, we attract what we are.
The Graying of America and Ministers
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2035 older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. In 2030, all baby boomers will be older than 65, and by then it is projected one in every five Americans will be retirement age.
Questions I’m Asking: How does this coming reality mesh with your current ministry model? I’m all for investing in and reaching the next generation (through staffing, building a children’s play space, or adding a community life center or gym), but is it wise to focus almost exclusively on what soon will be a minority segment of our total population? What will ministry to older adults look like in a few years? What opportunities can your church create to reach this aging demographic with the gospel? Would offering an older adult daycare center make more sense than a children’s daycare?
The online “State of Pastors” conference led by the Barna Group in January 2017 shared the following: “There are more pastors over the age of 65 than under the age of 40 today.”
Several possible reasons for this were suggested, including these: people are living longer and retiring older, many pastors have no retirement plan, millennials are interested in other careers, and churches struggle with healthy leadership succession.
My 14 years of research of Restoration Movement churches has consistently shown that church growth rates and the number of baptisms noticeably drop after the lead minister reaches age 55.
Questions I’m Asking: How can your church reposition a veteran minister for renewed effectiveness and continued ministry impact? What can you or your church do to encourage and help train up the next generation of church leaders? What are you doing to create and develop a better leadership pipeline? What is your church leadership doing to help your ministry staff plan and prepare for retirement?
‘The Third Gender Revolution’
A Time magazine story under the headline “The Third Gender Revolution” (from November 27, 2017) reported on a decision by Germany’s top court that the country must either create a third gender category or remove gender designations from public documents by 2019. This same article noted that Nepal legally recognized a third gender in 2007. At least eight countries, including Australia, have agreed to recognize more than two genders on passports and ID cards.
You might assume gender-related issues will never come to your church, but I remember first encountering such an issue 20 years ago while serving as an associate minister at my home church in Columbus, Ohio. The lead minister had a meeting with a person we knew as Don, who had attended the church a few years prior with his wife and family. Since then, however, he had transitioned his gender and had begun living as a single woman named Dawn. My Bible college degree didn’t prepare me for this kind of ministry, and I’m guessing neither did yours.
My 15-year-old daughter got to know a girl named Chelsea last school year. This past summer, Chelsea announced via Instagram that she now wanted to be called Chase and would be living as a teenage boy (names changed to protect privacy). A ministry friend recently told me a teen in his church’s youth program had transitioned genders. The church’s leadership was trying to figure out how best to serve and love this teen and the family while still teaching a biblical view on gender differences. My friend noted sadly that several other teens had stopped attending student ministry events at the church because of this situation.
This past September, California became the first state to legalize a third gender choice on state IDs. This includes but is not limited to some transgender individuals, those born with intersex traits, those who use gender-neutral pronouns, and those who describe their genders as “agender, genderqueer, gender fluid, Two Spirit, bigender, pangender, gender nonconforming, or gender variant” (according to “California Legally Recognizes Third Gender Option on Birth Certificate, State ID Card,” from the Washington Free Beacon, October 17, 2017). Oregon and Washington, D.C., now offer nonbinary residents an “X” on official documents.
Questions I’m Asking: How should the church respond? Is there a seat in your church for a teen or adult who is transgender or some other gender identity? How can we best extend grace while still sharing biblical truths? What pronouns will you use when talking with these folks? Which name will you choose to call them? The one by which you originally knew them or the one they want you to use now?
Paul wrote, “When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, New Living Translation, emphasis mine). How can we best follow his example?
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana.