I have just returned from my first Oregon Pastors Conference in Cannon Beach, Oregon. After 11 years of such retreats in Alaska, where the number of pastors was far fewer, I really didn’t know what to expect. It was good to catch up with friends, some from Seminary, some from ministry. I also met a number of people who were new to me and that was wonderful. The guest speaker offered some good insight into the text of St. John and the early work of the Church Fathers. In these things, the conference was beneficial but not challenging.
What was challenging to me was the state of so many of our churches in the Oregon conference. To say they are on the decline in numbers and effectiveness would be an understatement. If I had to venture a guess, in the next 10 years, a significant percentage of these churches will be extinct. I realize this isn’t news to anyone who has been following Jesus for any length of time. But to have it visibly displayed and openly discussed and admitted was eye-opening.
We are in that boat here in the Eugene/Springfield area of Oregon. There are six churches within 20 minutes of one another and five of those six are either vacant or being served only part time by men who ought to be enjoying true retirement. Only one of those churches is able to sustain a full-time pastor and only by the grace of God, that’s where I am. In the next 10 years, my estimate is that at least three of those six churches will be gone.
The question on everyone’s minds is “What can be done to stop that from happening?” The only real and honest answer is “God only knows.” For certain, there are things that churches around the country have been trying to do with varying degrees of success. Appealing to and bringing in younger families is one such answer. Another would be to change the worship style to better fit a “contemporary” mindset. Perhaps diversifying into the digital realm and using all of the social media platforms to promote the mission of the church would be helpful. Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know.
I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations since moving here from the Far North. In one such encounter, a woman was walking her dog around our property which I always find fun. I try to introduce myself to the people as often as possible. In this particular exchange, the woman asked what sort of building this was. I asked her what she meant by that. She said responded by asking what is this place and what do we do here. I said that it was a church and we worship God and teach about the Bible. Her comment was, “I don’t know what that is, but it’s a nice building.” I invited her to come and find out more and to stop in next time she was walking her dog around. I haven’t seen her yet.
I found myself in a very strange place. I’m sure she isn’t the only one who walks or drives by our building and has no idea what it is. There are now generations of people in this area who are not hostile to church, but who simply have no idea what it is. I’ll be honest. It’s kind of exciting. But I’m not sure how to proceed with this knowledge. Maybe a word picture would help. Let’s use a sea-going metaphor seeing as how I just returned from the beautiful coast.
Picture a fishing boat out at sea. It’s a nice boat, fresh paint, friendly people fishing on the deep blue sea. As they are fishing, a person on a pool float drifts into view. They are a long way from any pool and the captain of the boat isn’t sure how this person got there. The pool floater looks up at the boat and says, “What are you all standing on? I’ve never seen such a thing.” Confused, the fishers look at one another and shout out to the person on the float, “This is a boat. It’s a vehicle used to bring us out to the fishing grounds. It has a motor and steering. Have you never heard of a boat before?” The pool person responds, “Nope. But yours is real nice.” With that, the person on the pool float drifts away as the current and tides move.
I realize metaphors are limited and sometimes absurd. But consider this one. Let it generate questions. Let it generate discussion. Let it move or not move you. It’s a metaphor.