We all have “good old days” in our lives. They may be the days when we felt most successful or appreciated, or when things were done the way we agreed with or liked, or when those we respected were in charge.
Most of us have good old days in our churches too. Days when our favorite pastor ever was preaching, or when our Bible study group was especially close, or when our church’s ministries were thriving. Worship leaders were choosing the songs we loved, our church was respected in the community, and new people were attending and even joining, but not requiring uncomfortable change. Ah yes, the good old days.
And while in the past the good old days might have been different for each of us, 2019 somehow became the good old days for all of us. Things weren’t perfect that year by any means, but the arrival of Covid made 2019 our last common reference point for “normal.”
But now it’s 2023, and the time of year when we at IBSA look at 2022 year-end data and surveys from churches and seek to learn from them: 2020 and 2021 were not encouraging, with overall declines in churches’ worship and Bible study attendance, baptisms, and missions participation and giving.
Year-end 2022 data is more encouraging. Compared to 2021, baptisms in IBSA churches were up 40%, worship attendance was up 13%, and Bible study attendance was up 19%. VBS enrollment was up 38% and mission project participation was up 9%. And though giving through churches, which held up remarkably well during Covid, dropped almost 7%, the percentage of undesignated offerings that IBSA churches gave to missions through the Cooperative Program increased over 1%.
The footnote to all that good news, of course, is that those comparisons are of 2022 to Covid-impacted 2021. Compared to 2019, our last reference point for “normal,” most of those categories are still at least 20% lower.
As we’ve all been told, and most of us have learned with understandable regret, the good old days are not coming back. They weren’t coming back before 2019, because the landscape of our culture, our lives, and yes, our churches is constantly changing. And even the good old days of 2019 are not coming back, because those landscape changes only accelerated during Covid.
Here’s the good news, however. The good old days are not the goal. They never should be. The goal is to stay faithful to the Word of God and the unchanging gospel, to adapt to the changes and challenges of our times, and to set our sights on the good new days.
What are the good new days, and how does each church find its way there? I believe the road has at least three signposts. The first is spiritual renewal based on an honest, inward look led by the Spirit of God. The second is intentional preparation, especially by church leaders, to pivot the church’s posture and plans toward engaging spiritually lost people in their community, whatever that takes. And the third is actual, obedient behavior changes that turn the church inside out into its community to join Jesus in his mission to seek and to save the lost.
You’ll notice those three signposts don’t mention favorite preachers or preferred music or even close relationships. I think those are things that happen along the way. I think the good old days only look that way in the rearview mirror, and that they were only good back then because the church was joyfully and passionately pursuing the good new days. That’s what really made the good old days good.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.