Long-time Church Member? You Might Want to Read This

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This is an eye-opening article written by George Bullard, part of the Columbia Partnership group that helps churches make the most of their ministry opportunities. He always offers up good stuff, but his refreshing candor about his own feelings opens up a world that we don’t often fess up to. Read this, and participate in his survey link at the bottom of the article, if you’re so inclined. Then, post up comments and let me know what you think. Is he off the mark, or right on target?

Not long ago when I was present in my home congregation for Sunday morning worship, it was the day for deacon election. I received a ballot to vote for 12 out of 15 or 16 candidates. Since our congregation has two worship services and the one we attend is the smaller and older of the two, and since I am gone half of all Sundays consulting with other congregations, I am not always familiar with newer people who are connect with our congregation and rise in their involvement to the point where they are being considered as a deacon.

Reviewing the list of candidates, I caught myself wanting to turn to my wife and say, “who are these people and what makes them think they have the right to be a deacon in our congregation?” I did not say that to my wife during the worship service, but she laughed with me as I told her about my reaction on the way home following the worship service. I told her it helped me understand a little bit how quickly stakeholders can feel possessive about their congregation.

For a couple of decades I have been talking about a collection of people present in every congregation that is at least 20 years old. I call them 60-40-20 people. They are the stakeholders in a congregation who at times feel they possess preferred stock as part of their ownership of the congregation.

60-40-20 people have all three of the following demographic traits. They are at least 60 years old. They have been professing Christians and attending a church on a regular basis for at least 40 years. They have been members of their current congregation for at least 20 years.

Their age, their advanced understandings about how Christianity and congregations work, and their long tenure and deep relationships within the congregation often put them in charge formally or informally of the life and ministry of a congregation. They can express their real or implied authority in empowering ways, controlling ways, or both ways without any advance notice.

After a couple of decades talking about these people and their positive and negative roles in congregations, I have a dilemma. I am one. I turned 60 last summer. I have been a professing Christian more than 50 years, and I have been a member of my current congregation since 1985 except for almost five years spent in another state.

Achieving the status as a 60-40-20 person has challenged me to reassess my perspective on this group of people. The immediate result is that I would affirm the vast majority of things have I said about this demographic within congregations. The good news is that my self-awareness of the characteristics of these people has caused me to not fall into the trap of acting like them.

Characteristics of 60-40-20 People

As a result of looking at this demographic within hundreds of congregations, what have I discovered to be their characteristics? First, they have become comfortable with things the way they are in the congregation and as a group are slow to affirm and embrace change. They may have become blind to creeping mediocrity. Second, they feel a deep ownership for the congregation and its physical and financial assets. They feel a strong need to place a priority on preserving the various types of assets.

Third, they want their congregation to succeed. At the same time the methods with which they are familiar are generally old methods that may or may not work in the current situation or context of the congregation. Fourth, they are open to new people coming into the congregation, but may not be open to them making major changes in the congregation. Fifth, they prefer stability to adventure.

Sixth, they are resistant to change that happens too fast without an opportunity for them to adapt to the change. Seventh, they seek to keep the church from embracing methods and target groups who are too different from them and make them socially and emotionally uncomfortable. Eighth, they have a fixed understanding of their culture and civility of life style patterns, and have trouble accepting people who violate their long established culture and standards of civil behavior.

Ninth, they started attending church when the vast majority of people came from the same or similar denominational background, and now have trouble with people who connect with their congregation bringing significantly different theology, mores, understanding of governance, and worship expectations. Tenth, the leadership roles they have held off and on for many years provide meaning and significance to their lives. It is difficult to think about letting newer, younger people take some of their roles. The next generation of leaders may not respect the decisions of the previous generation.

Eleventh, 60-40-20 people have confused their faith in Christ and the cultural patterns of the congregation. They believe that to change their congregational patterns also might disrupt their faith relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That latter relationship is sacred and they should not allow anything to disrupt it. Thus, these newer, younger people may have to leave even if it means that congregation as a whole will not be a vital and vibrant as the 60-40-20 people desire.

Twelfth, if the congregation is experiencing decline in membership, attendance, and perhaps financial support, 60-40-20 people talk incessantly about the “go-old-days” when “so-and-so” was pastor, attendance was higher, vitality was contagious, and finances were plentiful. They have selective memory about the past, but are convinced it is better than the present days, and the future if they continue to allow the current leadership to take the congregation in the wrong direction. These feelings intensify if the congregation has within it a significant number of people who are 70-50-30 people.

Let’s Learn Together

If these 12 characteristics of 60-40-20 people are accurate, do you believe their tendency is to be empowering or controlling of the congregation? If empowering, how can we affirm that more deeply? If controlled, how can that best be challenged and turned in an empowering way.

Help me continue to think through this issue by completing the survey at http://survey.constantcontact.com/survey/a07e3b0o2llgjbx5pk9/start. At the end is an offer to be part of a collaborative community working on this subject with a focus on both assessment and solutions.

Also, join me for a Travel Free Learning Dialogue on this subject on Wednesday, January 26th at 2:00 p.m. EST by dialing 712.432.0800, then access code: 899605#

Important Things to Know

George Bullard is a Ministry Colleague and the Strategic Coordinator with The Columbia Partnership. He is also General Secretary [executive director] of the North American Baptist Fellowship of the Baptist World Alliance. The Columbia Partnership is a non-profit Christian ministry organization focused on transforming the capacity of the North American Church to pursue and sustain Christ-centered ministry. Travel Free Learning is a leadership development emphasis. For more information about products and services check out the web site at www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org, send an e-mail to Client.Care@TheColumbiaPartnership.org, or call 803.622.0923.

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1 comments on “Long-time Church Member? You Might Want to Read This”

  1. All that counts is Christ crucified, risen and expressed in word and deed. This expression should be meaningful to our culture, times, to those who do not yet know Jesus and to those who do. A great article.

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