When do you know a church is dying? Is it when attendance drops? Is it when the pastoral staff are visibly burned out? Is it when you can feel other leaders like Deacons and Elders quit caring?
When a church starts to die, people want to start pointing fingers. A church that just a few months or years ago was healthy with thriving ministries now seems lifeless. The people who sit in the pews are there for habit sake. There’s no passion. There’s no joy. Someone or something must be to blame. But church isn’t like a business where you can point to one bad idea that bankrupted the organization. When a church dies it’s a long downward trend and the culmination of multiple people and events.
I’ve watched several churches die growing up. Like a sick person, it starts slowly. What you believe to be just a small cold lingers longer than you like. Thinking that you’ll eventually get over it, you continue doing all the same things. Before long you find yourself lying in a hospital bed with pneumonia. Like a real body slowing weakening and fading before dying, a church dies in two stages. First is spiritual death, followed by physical death.
Spiritual Death of a Church
Spiritual death doesn’t necessarily mean heresy, apostasy, or any of those other big religious terms that split congregations. Spiritual death is most often silent. It’s apathetic and passionless. It’s in members and leaders who believe that they’re doing God’s work, but can’t really name the last time they actually did. It’s in members who are lukewarm to the life-changing power of grace. They’re only church members when they’re sitting in a pew or doing the habitual devotions.
Many people want to identify an individual as the reason for their church’s lack of spiritual growth. Most point at the head pastor by default. But being the head of the body of Christ does no good if the other body parts don’t work. A church’s culture, mission, and ministries shouldn’t revolve around a single person. The pastor should be a person who enhances what your church is about. It’s not like a corporation where you hire a guy to come in and change the culture, taking you in new directions. A senior pastor can’t come in and fire all the members that aren’t on board with the new way of doing things. It would be like Apple hiring a new CEO who believes the future of the company is in fast food.
The entire church body is responsible for the success or failure of a church. And that success belongs to God, not any one thing or person. No one I’ve ever met has quit going to church because of the pastor. There are thousands of pastors who are bad preachers, but loved by their congregations. Those people quit going because members gossiped, elders politicked, and the joy of Jesus was no where in the building. Smiles are fake. Sermons feel forced. And spirituality is furthest from anyone’s mind.
Physical Death of a Church
My dad recently told me that my grandmother was lamenting how her church was shrinking (dying). She said she was discouraged because all the members they had for many years were leaving to go to another church across town. She couldn’t believe that they would leave the church to do things like paintball. She then concluded “We’ll never do those sorts of things. We have the truth.”
Physical death is much more obvious. It’s when the pews are empty and offerings no longer cover the utilities. It’s in the sad “For Sale” sign in the lawn and the missing letters on the sign out front. And unfortunately, with physical death comes denial. As the old bastions of faith sit in the empty pews, they don’t see a church that has lost it’s passion for sharing the gospel. They see a church that is holding onto truth when all others have fallen away.
So what is the cause of church death?
I’m sure there are greater minds than mine who have analyzed and written thesis’ about the subject who could point to a myriad of reasons. But looking back on my experience of 30 years in the church (13 as a pastors kid) I can identify one reason above all others that leads to church homocide: Pride. Pride from a Pastor whose ministry is more self-serving than selfless. Pride from Elders and Deacons who bicker over who is more right. Pride from members who pass judgment on others, gossiping about those who are not living up to their personal standards. Ultimately these things displace Jesus as the focus of ministry. Like Carnegie in the movie “Book of Eli”, the Bible becomes a symbol of personal power and control. Not lifesaving inspiration.
In a world full of skepticism and self centered pleasure, church is “optional”. People are craving authenticity and a place to belong. They are in search of a church with a healthy heart beating for worship, not one that is kept alive artificially. They look for a body full of vigor and passion for the message of Jesus through word and action, not a body shriveled and decaying from misuse. They are seeking a church full of the breath of the Holy Spirit, not sucking on the oxygen tank of their own deeds.
Do you feel your church is alive or dying?
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