“Age is just a number; I’m young at heart.” Those are two phrases you probably won’t hear from a child. Children aren’t self-conscious about their age. Birthdays are for parties, not pity! At their best, children are too young to be cynical, too hopeful not to lose themselves in the moment. Most children don’t care about a clock; most adults don’t survive without a calendar. As we get older, we may gain wisdom, resources, and influence. But we also face the dangers of being more established in the world. We can trade living with passion for maintaining the status quo. We can trade serving others for protecting ourselves. We can trade childlike hope for growing cynicism. Aging with grace is not easy.
Do aging churches face the same challenges as aging people? Let’s compare younger church plants with older established churches. In one corner we have church plants, with their vibrant vision, evangelistic zeal, cultural sensitivity, team spirit, and world-changing ambition. I’m not saying that church planting is easy or that every church plant is a picture of health. But the reality of the task demands a vision that appeals to outsiders, a love that welcomes the stranger, and a commitment that engages every member. In the other corner we have established churches, with their improved facilities, predictable finances, varied ministries, and multigenerational flavor. Aging churches are not wrong to have buildings, budgets, or a breadth of options. But being an established church can bring a growing sense of obligation to keep doing what we’re doing, to maintain what we have, and to care for our own. Before long, an older church can lose the heartbeat that made it what it is. The passion to reach new people can give way to the priority of doing church for “us”. In an established church, people can easily become spectators who consume ministry instead of ambassadors who engage in it.
As our church grows older, what would it mean for us to think like a church plant? It starts with reminding ourselves over and over why we’re here. We don’t exist for ourselves. We exist to extend ourselves so that more and more people will experience the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. We should never grow tired of seeing new people come to know the Lord. Do we believe that the next person who walks through the door is as significant as the person who has been here from the beginning? In the heavenly vision of Revelation 7, we see “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). That’s beautiful, but how do we get there? How does God intend to gather this international, cross-cultural multitude? The plan hasn’t changed. The Lord uses gospel-preaching churches to plant gospel-preaching churches that will plant gospel-preaching churches. Thinking like a church plant means that we never forget how we got here, and we treasure the privilege to be involved in planting churches until the Lord returns. Whatever we invest in our own church should be seen as a strategic investment in new churches that will proclaim the good news: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10).
Are we bored with the mission of God? In Revelation 7, there’s nothing boring about the worship of heaven. People cry out with loud voices. Angels and elders and the four living creatures fall on their faces and worship God. In heaven, familiarity does not breed contempt. Proximity ignites passion! Earlier in Revelation, the Lord charges one church with forgetting her first love (Revelation 2:4). Have we? We’ve heard before, “What goes deepest to the heart goes widest to the world.” Thinking like a church plant means remembering and treasuring Jesus so that His love goes deepest to our hearts and widest to the world. Some churches have been open for centuries; some for only a fraction of that time. A new church can be “old”, and an old church can be “new”. What matters is the heart of the people and the presence of the Spirit. Each week we gather to worship the same God, hear the same gospel, and remind ourselves of the same mission. When the years start to add up, how will we relate to the monotony? As our church gets older, can we still say, “Age is just a number; we’re young at heart”? G.K. Chesterton writes:
God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
Perhaps God never tires of planting daisies, but He surely never tires of planting churches. For centuries He has said, “Do it again,” as His word and Spirit gather His people around the world. Jesus loves His church so much that He endured the cross for her joy. As His beloved people, will we stop and listen? Will we hear the voice of practicality calling us to play it safe…or the voice of Jesus calling us to extend ourselves? Will we follow our urge to build our own kingdom…or will we follow our Lord in His great church-planting mission? Brothers and sisters, the Lord is calling us to live in light of that great Day when He will gather His church together in that city with foundations, whose designer and builder is God. There, the season of church planting will close with a harvest song: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and forever” (Revelation 7:12). There, age will just be a number, for we will spend eternity growing young in God’s presence.
By Robby Higginbottom, assistant pastor of college ministry, Park Cities Presbyterian Church.