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On October 18, 2015, the congregation of United Presbyterian Church in Canon City, Colorado made the momentous decision to continue its story by planting a seed: a church plant!
Now, ECO is all about church planting, so this might not sound incredible. In fact, UPC was one of the earlier congregations to join ECO back in 2012. But nothing could seem more counterintuitive for UPC. After a difficult time with a former pastor, the church was required to go into a period of transition. I came to UPC in May of 2014 as its transitional pastor. I began to discover that healing wounds was not the main issue. UPC is nearly 150 years old, and our church building itself about 115 years old. At its peak in the mid 1960’s, the congregation numbered around 600. Our average attendance is now around 80. So, as you can imagine, our facilities are difficult to maintain. For a church to be in membership decline every year for over 45 years speaks to significant cultural and leadership issues over multiple generations. Unsurprisingly, the church is also consistently failing to meeting its budget. It is hard to encourage giving to a visibly declining institution, and keeping up appearances is equally important to a congregation focused primarily and almost solely on Sunday morning worship.
Doing some mathematical projections revealed that our congregation would cease to exist in the span of a decade if the current rate of decline continued. And for all the change I’ve brought, we haven’t seen an increase in attendance. The reality is that our congregation is elderly and tired. We struggle to find willing individuals to be elders and deacons. We are a grandparent and great–grandparent church. We decided about eight months ago to support other missions in the ways we are able, understanding that there isn’t a lot we can offer the community outside our walls on the frontlines. But I encouraged the congregation that we should do this on a massive scale, by planting a granddaughter church!
Because of generous giving in the past, our congregation has some funding in investment accounts, indeed, enough to run the church on savings for a number of years. But no one wanted to slowly dwindle away. And, although there are always repairs needed on our historically listed building, the congregation understands that these would always be temporary.
By following the teachings of Jesus, becoming a dying grain of wheat, we must lose our lives while we still live if we are to have eternal life (John 12:23–26). By spending our savings on helping a church plant start, we are taking a strategic risk for the kingdom, and leaving a gospel legacy. As Dana pointed out in his blog post on the “Top Five Reasons We Need to Plant Churches,” a church that plants often grows healthier in the process.
So What’s the Solution?
Attempts at common revitalization techniques have not really worked here. Though the spirit of many is willing, the flesh is too weak, often even to attend a discipleship group meeting. And the culture of our “Builder Generation” church is just too distant from that of Millennials to bridge the gap. Our service is not attractional to them. So what’s the solution? Plant a granddaughter church!
Feelings were definitely mixed. Initial feelings ran high with anxiety and fear. But I produced a magazine providing many details and articles about church planting, as well as hosted seven small group presentations. One elderly member expressed the feelings of many, “I don’t really want this to happen, but I’m 85 years old and who am I to get in the way? I don’t want to see my church close.” Others, however, were extremely positive once they’d understood church planting. Some wanted to make t–shirts. Two members of our praise band wrote a special song just for the voting occasion, feeling that God had laid the words on their hearts. In the end, all who could vote said “yes” with a couple abstaining.
Will it Succeed?
Will our congregation actually reverse its decline, or has it gone on too long? Only time will tell. But this is our last chance, and what better risk to take than to give deeply of what we do have to help reach our community for Jesus? The Builders often outsourced mission and consequently separated mission from church and from the home community. On October 18th, after our unanimous vote to plant a new congregation, I had the congregation lay hands on each other, commissioning ourselves to become a missionary congregation. It was a special moment and we received many comments that it had been a very “spiritual” service, which is not something I’d heard before. Transformation by reconciliation with God in Jesus Christ is our gospel, and it is coming again to Cañon City by the hands of many elderly folks!
You may not be in the place where you have to ask hard questions about the future of your congregation. Perhaps you are on the plateau or just beginning a decline. Had UPC taken this step 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years ago I know that we wouldn’t be in the position of looking at our own demise. The best way to bring renewed life to a congregation is to simply live the gospel by dying to yourselves and loving our neighbors in word and deed. Though there are a lot more details and thoughts that have gone into this, I want to encourage you and your congregations that, if UPC can do it, you can do it.