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Demographics are changing. Here is how the Church can mobilize.

Getty Images/Westend61
Getty Images/Westend61

Daniel Burrus, a leader in disruptive innovation, often draws this powerful analogy in his keynote speeches. Everyone knows Tarzan moves through the jungle by swinging from vine to vine. But, what happens if Tarzan grabs the new vine without releasing the old one? Tarzan stops moving. He dangles uncomfortably suspended in midair.  

While most of us have never literally swung from vine to vine in the jungle, I am willing to bet that we can all identify with the discomfort of holding on too long and facing the stress of being pulled in two different directions. Who doesn’t know the fear of letting go of the old before experiencing the rush of swinging onto the new? Swinging is just a part of growing up.

Christianity is a jungle filled with Tarzans. Some ministers are moving from vine to vine while others are stretched out in stagnation. Over the past few years, I have obsessed over global trends that are shaping our world – especially the church. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve now reached the point where the stress of holding on to old vines has become greater than the fear of swinging to new ones. Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe it’s time for Christian leaders to face hard trends and seize the opportunities extended on the other side of letting go. 

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There is no way any one article can address all the trends facing ministry leaders, but I hope to touch on some of the global trajectories that cannot be ignored.   

Aging is a hard trend. People are not getting younger. They are getting older. The baby boomer generation is continuing to retire en masse as the average life expectancy precipitously increases. Despite what you and I may have learned in grade school, we are experiencing a global population decrease. So, what do ministry leaders do with a burgeoning senior population and a shrinking adolescent population?

Perhaps, we should consider planting churches near retirement communities and not just in the suburbs. Maybe we should consider hiring ministers for the elderly instead of just ministers for the youth. And, maybe, at the risk of sounding morbid, we should reignite a ministerial interest in funeral homes, cemeteries, and Christian counseling for the bereaved. Demographers predict a world with more grandparents than grandchildren in the next decade. This is just the beginning. It’s time to swing.

Secondly, diversity on all fronts is growing. The church may be the last institution to catch up with this trend, but this direction will ultimately be accepted and understood. Maybe this is thanks to the internet and social media. Maybe it’s due to immigration and democratization. Or maybe we’ve all just had enough of our ego and isolation. Cultural insensitivity was never a good thing and fortunately, it will no longer be tolerated.

It’s not unreasonable to predict local church elder boards will soon transition from homogeneous to heterogeneous as their communities unequivocally diversify. It’s not science fiction to imagine a Christian University where class lectures are instantaneously translated and transmitted (via new technology) to earbuds worn by cross-cultural students in and out of the country. Who knows, maybe even Christian conferences will finally become as multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-generational as the World Cup or the Disney World theme park. Historically speaking, diversity has not always been easy to manage, but in the future, uniformity will almost be impossible to find.    

We’ve heard it said, “the person who doesn’t know where his next dollar is coming from usually doesn’t know where his last dollar went.” This truth is especially disconcerting considering almost everything about our society’s earning, spending, giving, investing, and saving habits are changing at warp speed.  

At what point will church denominations diversify their portfolios to include cryptocurrencies? Maybe after this recent crypto crash, a market standardization for bitcoin and blockchain technology will be set and available in an ETF.  When will the church committee finally agree to allow the local homeschool co-op to rent out its facilities during the week to pad the benevolence fund? Finally, is the sprawling Christian camp down the road ever going to make use of green technology and install solar panels to offset their overhead expenses? How we make and save money in the future will be different.  

Swinging in relation to money, diversity, and aging may not be at the top of your ministry’s to-do list.  Maybe you lead a non-profit organization that’s seeking to end homelessness and you are pouring all your efforts into acquiring a 3D printer large enough to generate micro-houses for entire communities, instead of just investing in flying out countless short-term missionary teams to construct basic dwellings during the rainy season. The most presenting need for ministries differs from location to location. But, one thing is for sure, swinging beats suspending. And, swinging certainly beats ceasing. Sadly, today, anticipation isn’t as popular as ignorance.

However, we Christian leaders might want to spend some time thinking about the future, for we are going to spend the rest of our lives ministering in it.  

Joshua Gilmore serves as the director of Community Connection and Ministry Mobilization at North Greenville University. Gilmore earned both his BA and MA at NGU (Christian Studies - 2005 & Christian Ministry - 2007). Gilmore continued his study at Columbia International University and earned his Educational Specialist degree (Ed.S) in Christian Higher Education in 2016. Prior to serving at NGU, Gilmore was a youth pastor in the Chicago area, professor/administrator at a small college of missions, and a music minister in New Jersey. Gilmore loves to be with his wife and three daughters, go on outdoor adventures, and passionately serve Christ through teaching, leading, and creating.

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