With the growth of the Wal-Mart empire, especially since the late 1980s and early 1990s when the franchise started selling groceries and the number of stores reached nearly 2000 across the nation, many smaller chains and family owned stores of all varieties, quickly became unsustainable. Why? Either because they didn’t adapt to a changing market and/or they found that they couldn’t compete with the massive volume of variety and cheaper prices. Wal-Mart became “literally” a one-stop store, very near you, selling everything from sporting goods to hardware. If your family-owned store didn’t have a niche or offer better quality, your store was or is being forced to close. And now, Wal-Mart and Amazon are impacting the sustainability of large chain stores because of their online presence and free shipping options. That’s right, from the comfort of your home, regardless of the day or time, you can place an order, and have it shipped directly to you. They’ve increased the convenience of shopping and drastically decreased the overhead costs allowing these giants to offer products at an even lower price. All the more so, Wal-Mart recently added in-store pickup without even getting out of your car. The entire retail industry is forced to either adapt or become extinct. The executives at Sears/K-Mart, Toys R Us and Younkers can attest to what happens if you don’t adapt. Can you spell C-L-O-S-E-D?
Other examples of those struggling to maintain sustainability are schools and businesses in small town farming communities. According to a government agriculture census published in 2014, there is a growing decrease in the number of farms and growth in the average farm size. What does this mean? Since there are less farmers farming more land, the population is decreasing to include the number of families and children. For instance, a farmer that I personally spoke to recently from George, Iowa (population 1,068) said, “I am farming what 10 farmers used to farm in the 1970s.” How does this impact the small farming communities? There are less households in the school district forcing a growing number of districts to consolidate. Also, due to a decline of population in these communities, businesses are closing, and tax revenue streams are diminishing impacting the number of amenities offered in the community. Small towns aren’t even able to sustain a local police presence, postal services, library facilities and garbage pick-up. It is also becoming increasingly rare to see a dentist, doctor or pharmacy in a rural farm community.
Beyond that, the local church is in severe decline in the rural community. According to Eric Stoltz, Roman Catholic deacon and author of the book "Ascend: The Catholic Faith for a New Generation," the Catholic Church has closed over 1,000 parishes since 1995. Please note, this number includes consolidating city parishes. Nonetheless, this is a startling decrease since we know the Catholic Church is well represented in rural communities throughout the northeast and north central states. The statistics for a once dominant United Methodist Church, especially across the Northern tier states, is startling as well. According to an article published by Heather Hahn, Places of the Heart, Local Church at Crossroads, “in the past decade, the number of rural congregations has declined by more than 3,000.” And, by the way, the problem is limited to just Catholic and Methodist Churches. I might add, some of the decline we are seeing is self-inflected including an inability or lack of resolve to adapt and some as a result of other uncontrollable factors such as cultural changes and population shifts.
For that matter, it isn’t just the rural church that is searching for a sustainable model. Churches, regardless of size or location, are all feeling the strain of maintaining sustainability. Generally speaking, our communities as a whole are no longer understanding of the significance of the local church. For instance, there was once a respect for Sunday and Wednesday night church related activities. In fact, even in the 1970s, the local school district where I grew up had a policy that school related activities were restricted from conflicting with church ministries on Sundays and Wednesday nights. However, as you know, and have likely experienced, the church meetings and activities are now just another choice of activities on Sunday and Wednesday nights. There are simply no boundaries even among Christians. Just like Wal-Mart and Amazon dominate the market place, sports and entertainment now dominate the weekend for Christians and non-Christians alike. And beyond that, an increasing percentage of the working population are required to work on Sunday as the market has gone 24/7 and global.
All in all, there are a lot of things that local churches need to do to be sustainable into the future. However, instead of complaining about the culture, or anything outside of our control for that matter, it should begin with us. You know, as the adage goes, “You should put your own house in order before telling other people what to do.” There are at least 7 things the local church needs to do to address the problem from a spiritual perspective. First, we as Christians need to get our hearts and mind right. We are to worship God alone (Deuteronomy 6:4, Exodus 20:3-6). Second, we must love God with our entire being (Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:36-38). Third, we must be in constant prayer about everything and for everyone as much as is possible (1 Thes. 5:17; 1 Tim. 2:1-8). Fourth, we must commit ourselves to the authority of the Bible (2 Tim 3:16). Fifth, we must be actively engaged in the purpose of the church. We are commanded by Jesus, who has all authority, to make disciples of all people groups (Matthew 28:18-20). Sixth, it is essential that we establish healthy boundaries that support the form, function and mission of the local church and the health of the family. Our boundaries must include applying biblical principles in the areas of using our time, talents and tithes to further the kingdom of God and serving the local church. And, lest we forget, God is always worthy of our private and corporate worship. Seventh, we must insist on God-pleasing priorities and balance. May I remind you that our priorities, as Christians, should reflect a Christ-centered urgency beginning with God, family and His church (Matthew 6:33; 7:24-27).
There are also practical strategies the local church must implement to maintain sustainability. First, develop partnerships and networks to pool resources to plant new churches. Second, give at least the first 10% of the church’s general fund offerings to support missionaries. Third, develop a system to intentionally multiply disciples and develop leaders. Fourth, implement a strategy to grow and multiply small groups thus giving leaders practical experience and building momentum to plant new churches. Fifth, consistently demonstrate acts of kindness and generosity that impacts our community. Sixth, address the neediest in your community by helping with homelessness, addiction and transitional housing. Seventh, larger churches in population centers in each county must support failing rural community churches as satellites or campus extensions.
Obviously, America is going through cultural, market and spiritual shifts that create a need for the local church to implement sustainable solutions. In other words, the church needs to return to its biblical roots. Like I already proposed, it starts with me (you) and then us as the church. Once we’ve repented from our personal and corporate sin, which will likely be nothing short of a revival, then we might have the capacity to implement practical solutions as well. All in all, when we are right with God we are positioned to set an example for others. After all, why would a desperate sinner in need of Jesus look to the lukewarm Christian, who isn’t clearly distinguishable from another, for spiritual help and answers? What, they say? The same act with different costumes? Maybe even more demoralizing is the decay of the local church. On the whole, the sustainability of the local church depends on each and every born-again follower of Jesus Christ. Our collective spiritual health (you might say our sustainability as a church) is built with every member of the body of Christ (you included). The chief cornerstone is in place (Eph. 2:19-22). The head is in place (Col. 1:18). It’s time for us to join Jesus in His body (the church).
A Work in Progress,