Sunday, February 26, 2012

Widgets

Death of a Local Church

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.  (Revelation 2:4-5)
I recently had the misfortune to watch the final death struggle of a local church with which I was closely acquainted.  I'll call it "First Neighborhood Church" (FNC).  The process was hard to watch, but instructive.  I took several lessons away:

1.  Churches die when their members stop growing in Christ.  Spiritual growth is a lifelong process.  In a healthy church, every member is challenged with regular doses of biblical teaching.  Expository preaching doesn't recycle the same seasonal or self-help themes over and over, and doesn't shy away from difficult topics.  Sunday school and Bible study classes are encouraged for all members, not just the children.  Discipleship isn't just the topic of one sermon or Bible study course, but is an active process that occurs organically and consistently throughout the body.  Members learn and accept that they are accountable to one another and to the church.  In the declining years of FNC most were no longer growing; they were atrophying.  Eventually they just moved on or lost interest.

2.  Churches die when they "fish off the dock" as their primary outreach method.  Over the decades FNC had devolved into the kind of church that hung out its shingle and waited for its neighbors to find it based on its reputation, its big events, or the idea that local people still go to their local church.  This is both unbiblical and ineffective, especially in today's mobile, post-Christian society.  The neighbors aren't coming.  If they do show up, they'll visit a time or two to see what's going on before they move on to the next new thing.  When the church's primary evangelism method is "fishing off the dock", it will catch a few small fish, many of which have been previously caught and released by others.  Don't be surprised when you see several hooks still in the fish's mouth!  There are larger schools of fish out there, but it means your members are getting into their boats and pushing out into deeper water.  It means they'll have to live evangelistic lives, not just attend evangelistic events.  It means they'll have to risk something.  A church whose members stay on the dock is a church that will die.

3.  Churches die when they over-celebrate their heritage.  This point is related to the first.  FNC had a glorious past, which it celebrated incessantly by posting portraits, naming memorials, and carrying on traditions.  Over time, the building began to feel like a mausoleum.  But the children of those celebrated saints grew up and moved away, while all that accumulated heritage became the millstone they relentlessly clung to as they slipped below the surface and sank out of relevance.

4.  Churches die when they are populated by members who don't participate in ministry.  A clear sign of a church in trouble is when a decreasing number of its members participate in ministry activities, or when the "ministry activities" that do attract participation are reduced to a small number of special events the lazy (yes, I said it) members can claim credit for.  Senior members "retire" from ministry rather than "re-mission" to other forms more suited to their station in life.  Younger members float along unchallenged and demand to be served and entertained.  New members are added in the form of anyone who will pray the "sinner's prayer", submit to baptism or sign the card.  Nothing is expected of them and nothing is given, and many leave within weeks of signing up.  The leadership team begins to feel isolated and overburdened, at a loss as to how to feed all these gaping mouths.  In the final stages, a siege mentality sets in and it becomes us versus them ... the overworked, underappreciated and bitter core versus the disillusioned mass of complaining and diminishing malcontents.  It's an ugly scene, and one I've seen played out too many times.

Well, this has been a downer, so I should end with a plug for IX Marks, which devotes itself to building healthy churches on solid, biblical foundations which will endure.  To the credit of those who stayed committed to the end, FNC actually made a final, valiant attempt to remake itself in that model, but it was just too late.  Burdened by a mountain of financial obligations and a shattered reputation left over from the church's long decline, they simply ran out of time.

9 comments:

  1. Your observations are pealing with true warning, and the Revelation verses ever so relevant and so heartbreaking!

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  2. Pretty perceptive. Another sober observation might be that a cult might well be able to do all those things and thrive.

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  3. OK, though you could quibble that it's hard to perform true biblical teaching without biblical theology, and that growing in Christ is impossible for non-Christians. Still, I take your point to be that having a healthy church is ultimately reliant on the work of the Holy Spirit, and cannot be reduced to a checklist of effective methods?

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  4. I agree with that take, but meant a bit more: (1) A checklist of effective methods may be very appropriate for a cult. (2) But the Lord won't tolerate it in His church. (3) There's a sense in which the pathologies you describe are cult-like, but not the whole package. A church (like Ephesus) may lose its first love. It's doctrinally sound, and so not a cult, in some sense, but it's in danger of ceasing to be what the Lord requires in a church, and so He may simply snuff it out. (4) One way that some like that defend themselves is to go all the way, and become true cults, though they may disguise what's happening pretty well. We may look at their creedal statements and say, "No, it's not a cult", but, if we look seriously at their practice, we'd have to conclude we were wrong - and they may flourish!

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  5. OK I'm tracking with you now. My initial response was actually 180-degrees out of phase with where you were going with this.

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  6. An excellent commentary on churches that simply fade away.... Thank you for your thoughts!

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  7. It's hard to say "thank you" for something that is so haunting, but I'll say thank you nonetheless.

    This is a truly sobering message.

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  8. Jesus ate with publicans and sinners; He asked a non-Jewish woman for a drink of water and gave her the water of life;; He was concerned about the present needs of people; He forgave an adulteress and said, "go and sin no more"; He said to one who wondered who his neighbor was, "go and do thou likewise'; He told disciples to "pray the Lord of the harvest" and then sent them out to live the prayer; and He tells us that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations. When the Church (the people of God in Christ) has done all this, it has not failed. The Spirit works the results.

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  9. Amen to point #2 Fishing off the dock. We don't see this in scripture do
    we? But because individual Christians are not doing their part in
    reaching out to those in their sphere of influence with the Gospel, the
    Church has had to take up the slack. This is God's way of evangelism; individuals. Thank you for this article. I've sent it over to my husband; He is a senior pastor
    and we have a new church plant of three years now. It's growing V E R
    Y slowly. Some people are coming alive but others do not seem to be.
    Growing a church is not what it used to be 25-30 years ago. It's much
    harder.

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