“I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.” – Revelation 3:1-2
A year ago today my mother died. Her passing was peaceful, surrounded by the family she loved. Tears were shed, hands were held, prayers were shared. After fighting an extremely rare and debilitating disease, mom slipped away in the early hours of the morning on September 10, 2016.
To be clear, her doctor had not originally declared she was terminal. At the time, the prognosis seemed to suggest potential recovery. But the physician eventually saw the signs.
Mom was diagnosed with anca vasculitis at age 75, a rare, vicious, relentless disease. She died five months before her 80th birthday.
The origins of my mother’s illness were years in the making, buried in her body, slowly working their way into her immune system until they appeared as irreversible symptoms. By the time she was diagnosed, there was not much anyone could do … she had been slowly dying for years and no one knew.
Something feels missing
Many churches today suffer from a similar malaise – literally dying slow, gradual deaths.
In some cases, like my mother neither they nor their congregations seem to realize how sick they are. All appears well on the surface – plenty of bright shining faces in the pews, a vibrant children’s ministry, bouncy sermons from popular preachers with catchy series names. Yet deep beneath the surface something just feels … missing, hollow.
In all too many other churches, the diagnosis is plain but not acted on in meaningful ways. Membership has been declining for years, former longtime members have moved to newer, fresher churches, the average age of the members is closer to retirement than from having that first child.
For these churches, “change” is not in their vocabulary as they continue serving the call God placed on the hearts of their predecessors 20, 30, 50 or more years before. “This is who we are,” they say, comfortable in discernment they feel is exceedingly true.
Why does this happen? Why do some churches march solemnly down the road to extinction? Why aren’t they bold in the face of a changing world?
The challenges facing today’s church leadership teams are more complex than any time in modern history. While I volunteer as a worship leader at my church, I’m not on staff nor have I ever been. My career experience is in the secular world, but I’ve used that background to observe a number of churches over the years and spoken at length with their leaders either privately or at leadership forums. Here are a few thoughts on why churches fail to turn from the pathway leading to shutting their doors.
Leadership doesn’t recognize the problem
Recent statistics indicate church membership across the U.S. has dropped 15% over the last 10 years, with nearly 85% of U.S. churches either declining or have plateaued. In my own denomination alone, total membership is down nearly 20% in five years. Some individual churches have experienced declines in attendance by over 80%.
Do churches actually impact their communities?
I would be curious where the gospel witness is for these churches within their communities when nearly half of people asked say today’s church has no positive impact. How many new believers do they bring to Christ (other than child baptisms)? How are they actually impacting the lives of the unchurched or reaching the six in ten young people walking away from the church altogether?
To some of these churches, there is no problem, just a resigned recognition that things aren’t like they used to be. Others have faced the changing tastes of their congregations by watering down their teachings, making themselves less offensive. But always keeping the offering coffers filled.
Paul, in writing to the Galatians, warned against such attitudes of denial when he said “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7).
Leadership admits there’s a problem, but it’s not their fault
These folks blame the community. People should be walking through the door, but they’re simply not. The culture is changing, and they shouldn’t have to adjust to the new ethnic make-up of their cities. “We’ll just shepherd our current members,” they say. Or, it’s the fault of the previous four pastors who just never quite fit in.
Facing our problems is crucial if we hope to overcome them. When David was called by God to confront Goliath he didn’t blame Saul’s army. Instead, scripture tells us “Then it happened when the Philistine rose and came and drew near to meet David, that David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:48).
Only when we’re willing to grapple with our challenges can we hope to stem the hemorrhaging of congregants.
Searching for “Superman” pastors
They prayerfully offer that if the Search Committee will just find that perfect Senior Pastor, everything will turn around. After all, the Superman Pastor works for us, right? He (or she) will make it happen. Yet for one reason or another, pastor after pastor leaves after a 2-3 year stint. Rinse and repeat, nothing changes.
This approach to church leadership directly contradicts scripture, in that it denies the role each of us plays in a healthy church. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul instructs “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).
We all play a role in a living church
We are meant to unify as co-leaders in our churches, not place the burden on a single figure. Why? To go make and disciples of the world (Matthew 28:19).
Why can’t we just go back?
“Remember when Pastor Steve was here? Things were perfect then.” It’s a common refrain. Turn the clock back 10 years, or maybe 20. That’s when the church felt alive. Can’t we just go back to doing church like we did then?
This attitude reminds me of the exacting discipleship Jesus demanded – not looking back, not reminiscing, not thinking of the past. When asked by a would-be follower if he could go back and bury his dead father Jesus replied: “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
Churches like this are everywhere, and growing in number. Too often congregations turn inward when faced with change, fearful of what that change might bring. Culture responds. Is your church among them?
Sadly, too many churches are dying – some slowly, others more rapidly. While God can intervene when a faithful congregation cries out, the church must turn its face to Him, walking away from prior preferences, desires, and even treasured traditions. In other words, repent (or “turn away”). As Peter is quoted in Acts 8:22-23 “Therefore repent … and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”
Churches cannot program, cajole, or buy their way back to life. As humans, neither can we. Instead, we must face our challenges head on, adapting when we can, accepting God’s direction when we can’t.