I can remember those creaky wood floors, the smell of old Bibles and hymnals, and the sunlight on my face as I stood on the porch staring out at the tiny town my grandfather’s family had called home like it was yesterday. Laughter and excited greetings filled the air. One image, though, stands out more than these. It was a map with dozens of thumb tacks and names. My aunt Myrtle proudly filled me in. These were the names of the young men from the church and students from Abilene Christian University who had once been part of the Weinert congregation (or who had “practiced” preaching and teaching at Weinert while students at ACU), but were now serving as ministers and missionaries. This all came roaring back into my mind recently as the elders and I were discussing the future of our own congregation, the challenges of demographic shifts, and the age gap we currently see in our congregation, and it has changed my perspective.
Many of us in smaller churches are all too aware of the effects of a constantly mobile population. When a family finds better pay and job opportunities in Houston, Dallas, or the oil field, we feel it. When our high school graduates go off to college and never return, we feel it. It is easy to see the loss, but what struck me in this meeting a few months ago is that we are slow to see the thumb tacks on the map. Yes, we have lost most of a generation to bigger cities, but we haven’t lost a generation. We have shared them. How is that?
In his book The Monday Morning Church,  Jerry Cook tells of Dr. Richard Halverson’s response to Cook’s question, “Where is your church?” Dr. Halverson said, ““Well, it’s three o’clock in Washington, D.C. The church I pastor is all over the city. It’s driving busses, serving meals in restaurants, having discussions in the Pentagon, deliberating in the Congress.” And this is what happens when we understand that the disciples of Jesus we make are not ours to gather, but ours to send out.
Where are many of the young men and women raised in this church I now serve? Are they not serving Jesus in Austin, Houston, Lubbock, Abilene, DFW, and beyond? Yes, they are! And they are working in offices, teaching in schools, serving in churches, and going on mission trips, too. They are thumb tacks all over the map. They are serving Jesus having a kingdom impact, all over the map. Our loss has been the kingdom’s gain, and that may have been God’s plan all along.
What if those in churches where families are constantly moving in and out (and yes, even in churches where they are mostly moving out) took such a view? What if, instead of getting worried every time we hear a member entertaining the idea of moving to a larger city, we intentionally started preparing our members to be ambassadors of Christ? Could it be that small, rural churches might be great incubators for young leaders to develop? Could it be that they are even uniquely equipped by God for that role? What if we started sitting down and having this conversation with our young men and women? What if we started praying with them about it? What might God do with those thumb tacks on our map?
“But, James, we need young families here!” I hear you. So do we. Let me challenge you as I challenge myself, with two things you and I can start doing today. First, let’s get out and make new disciples. God is constantly bringing new families into town who do not yet know his grace.
Second, a church in upstate New York found themselves in the place of losing their high school and college graduates to out-of-state jobs. They wanted to be proactive, and they wanted to see the kingdom grow in New York state. They decided to sit their high school graduates down each year and invite them to come back to serve in the church for the greater good of the kingdom. They prayed over them, and encouraged them again as their college graduations approached. Did everyone come back? No. But some did, and are now very active leaders in their congregation. When was the last time most of us invited a college graduate back home? When was the last time we called high school seniors in to pray over their possible future in our local church? What might God do if we did?
Back in Weinert, my grandfather was one of those thumb tacks. He first left for WWII, but it was ultimately the gospel he heard in those cotton fields that sent him beyond Haskell county. He and his siblings served in churches all over Texas. That little church is gone now. Like a seed, it fell to the ground, and it has born much fruit (John 12:24). And their loss has been the kingdom’s gain all over the world.