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:
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.