The numbers say the Southern Baptist Convention is in decline, along with most other evangelical denominations.
The question becomes how to reverse it. How can churches line themselves up with God’s priorities for the local church?
There appears to be three factors involved in turning things around.
- Recognize the value of commitment – demonstrate to new believers that in order to grow as a disciple of Christ they must be a committed part of a local church.
- Recognize the value of groups – seek to move people from merely sitting in pews to investing their lives in community with others.
- Recognize when a church is dying – continually evaluating the health of a local congregation and taking the steps needed to encourage life.
When churches have not brought in and discipled new believers and when they have failed to involve their members in small group communities, often times the harsh reality is that they are dying. Then they have to consider if they are willing to do something about it.
Is Your Church Dying?
That’s the question each church needs to ask itself. And the members need to be honest about what is really happening there.
In his work as a church consultant, Thom S. Rainer saw healthy churches, sick churches and churches that would soon be dead.
Those closing their doors in the future usually had no idea their fate, but the signs were all around them. They simply refused to take an honest look at their situation.
In his book Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, Rainer further develops and validates through research a blog post he wrote last year.
The post resonated with readers of his blog and became one of his most viewed posts. It still draws readers daily as church leaders seek to evaluate the health of their church. In it, he gave these 11 characteristics of a church that died:
- The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
- The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
- Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
- The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
- There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
- The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
- With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
- The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
- The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
- The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
- The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”
Do those characterize your church? If so, it may well be dying, but thankfully we worship a God who brings the dead to life. There is always hope.
Hope for the Dying Church
What good would it do to merely point out the unhealthy state of a church without also pointing out the way forward to health.
Some churches are able to see life again in their dying congregation. It happens when they humble themselves before God and seek His will for serving as a local body in the context in which He has placed them.
In evaluating those churches who have made dramatic turnarounds, Rainer gives six radical steps taken to realize the new life.
- A leader must rise and be willing to lead the church toward radical transformation regardless of the personal costs to him. That leader is typically a new pastor in the church, but it does not have to be.
- A significant group in the church must admit that they are desperate for help. The significance of the group could be their sheer size; for example, they could be a majority of active members. Or the significance could be the influence of those in the group rather than the number. This group must lead the church from denial to a painful awakening to reality.
- That same group must confess guilt. They failed to reach the community. They held on to the idolatry of yesterday. They were only comfortable with “our kind of people.” They saw the church to be a place where their needs were met and personal preferences catered.
- The group must have an utter, desperate, and prayerful dependence on God. They can no longer look at the way they’ve always done it as the path for the future. They must fall on their faces before God and seek His way and only His way.
- The church must be willing to storm the community with love. The church can’t assuage their guilt by having a food and clothes pantry where community residents come to them once a week. Members must go into the community, love the unlovable, reach out to the untouchable, and give sacrificially of time, money, and heart. The community must be amazed by these church members.
- The church must relinquish control. If the church reaches the community, the community will come to the church. They may be poorer. They may have different colors of skin. They may speak differently. They may have a radically different culture than members of the church. If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church. This attitude is radically different than welcoming the outsiders to “our church.” It is an attitude that says it is now “your church.”
Those difficult steps can lead to something truly miraculous in a church that many have long since written off.
When an individual church reverses their decline, denominations will do the same. This happens when churches begin making committed disciples who are involved in some type of group—Sunday school, life group, discipleship class, Bible study fellowship.
Let us pray that God will work a change in denominations, churches, and individual Christians to bring about growth for His glory.
- Book: Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom Rainer
- Assessment tool:Transformational Church Assessment
- Assessment tool:Transformational Discipleship Assessment
- Blog post:Four Keys to Planning for Church Health
- Blog post:Five Common Characteristics of Churches That Survived Near Death Experiences
- Blog post:Very Sick Churches
- Blog post:Five Questions to Ask to See if Your Church is Dying
- Blog post:12 Reasons to be Optimistic About the Future of Local Congregations
Aaron Earls (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.
photo credit: Roma Flowers