Sadly, churches, like individuals, die. This has been on my mind and heart recently, since one of our sister churches in my denomination, a church from which the church I pastor sprung up, closed its doors. In fact, it has so weighed on my mind that I arose at 2:30 A.M. to begin writing this post. The church was one with a long history of ministry in its community. It had been pastored by men I knew personally and respected greatly. It was a seedbed for raising up pastors from its ranks. It is gone and the loss brings the same stages of emotion as the death of a person: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Even though I was not personally connected to the church since I was not the pastor, a member, or close friend of members, I have been affected by the loss. I know people who are grieving because this is or was their church. Some had a close association with the church at one time in their lives. Some have known or been associated with the pastors I mentioned. Some used to call this church their home church. Now it is gone and grief is the only way to describe the loss.
Sadly, when churches die, there is no obituary posted, no funeral service conducted, no burial plot to visit, and no autopsy performed. In essence, there are few opportunities for people to understand what happened or to gather and mourn the loss. Grief is present, but opportunities for expressing and processing that grief are absent. People are left to grieve alone or to find their own way to process their grief. It doesn't seem right that a church can close its doors without some kind of opportunity to recognize its impact on the lives of others and to let the survivors (those present members who are left) know the depth of the loss.
Sadly, the estimates are that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors each year (see http://www.churchleadership.org). They do so for various reasons, but one reason that cannot be avoided is another statistic: 3,500 people leave the church each day. Many do so hurt and disillusioned. A pastor friend (Bill Keaton) collected a list of church diseases and published them in a diagnostic tool for an emphasis we were calling Great Commission Churches. Sadly, I have been unable to locate my copy, but I did find a list of diseases on the website: http://www.chucklawless.com. He lists the following diseases:
Community Disconnect Disease.
Churches with this disease meet within a given community, but they do not know that community.
Methodological Arthritis. The name says it all: this church is stuck in doing things the way they’ve always done them.
The “Grass is Greener” Syndrome. This syndrome is a malady where pastors or people see this church as a temporary place to be until they can find a "better" church.
Professional Wrestling Sickness. Sooner or later, we realize that in PWS it’s all fake. The church with PWS talks a good game in standing for righteousness, but hypocrisy is everywhere.
Program Nausea. Churches with Program Nausea try a program, toss it soon, and then quickly try the next one. They never seem to find a stability on which to build a ministry.
Baby Believer Malady. This congregation is doing evangelism well, but they have no strategy to grow new believers. Their unwritten, and wrong, assumption is, “As long as you show up for our small groups and worship service, you’ll grow.”
Theological Self-Deception Ailment. While no church with an unbiblical theology can be healthy, TSDA is characterized by a belief that teaching theology is all that is required to be a healthy church.
“Unrecoverable Void” Syndrome. Church leaders and laypersons alike suffer from an overemphasis on self-importance, characterized by statements like, “This church will close its doors after I’m gone.” Church members with UVS fail to realize that God’s church will go on without any of us.
Talking in Your Sleep Disease. They go through the motions, but the motions lack energy. They meet for worship, yet the atmosphere is lifeless.
Congregational Myopia. The congregation with this condition is nearsighted, focusing on themselves only. They have no vision for the future, and they fail to see that their current direction will likely lead to further disease and decline.
I am sure that, if we were to conduct more thorough research, we could come up with other common ailments and diseases. The point is that, just as with individuals, churches may become unhealthy with one or more diseases that, if left untreated, can bring about their demise. The first requirement is to recognize the symptoms
. The next is to diagnose the problem
. Then a treatment
must be prescribed
. And, of course, the patient must be willing to undergo treatment
. The sad fact is that, just as in cases with individuals, this all too often comes too late to save the patient. Early diagnosis provides the greatest opportunity for successful treatment. Prevention (pursuing healthy practices for church development and growth) is the best way to avoid these diseases, just as pursuing a healthy lifestyle is the best defense against illness and disease.
I hope that you have been able to stay with me through the more theoretical and less personal aspects of this post. I believe that the information is important and relevant, but I want to return to the personal matter of grief. The death of any individual we know subjects us to the contemplation of our own death. Mortality presses upon us as we face the death of a loved one. We wonder about how we may face death and we are reminded that death is inevitable for each of us (unless the Lord returns before we die).
Of course, the longevity of a church certainly may exceed that of an individual and I don't personally believe that its death is inevitable. In this, the analogy breaks down. But we do live in a world of chaos, confusion, and destruction, a world of death. Although it doesn't have to be inevitable, I believe that it is always a possibility for a local church to grow ill and die. In my own denomination I have seen almost half of our churches close in my 42 years of ministry. Several of those churches that closed were churches I had pastored. It is with a heavy heart that I recall the memory of my time there in those churches and the once vibrant ministry conducted there.
When a church closes, we ask ourselves, even if our church seems vibrant and healthy, "Could this happen to my church?" It is not a question to ask lightly. When we hear of the closing of another church, we should take seriously the opportunity to consider the health of our church, to observe any symptoms that might indicate some illness or disease, and to take preventative steps to address any problems we see. Overconfidence and complacency are our greatest enemies. We ignore the signs of illness to our peril. If we wait to long, the disease may become terminal.
But there is hope. About 1,000 churches are born each year and that number is increasing. Also, many churches have recovered from one or more of the diseases mentioned above. Death is not inevitable and the prospect of revival is encouraging. We should not lose heart or grow weary in well-doing. If we do not faint, we will reap the fruit of our labors. The work of ministry may be for people, but it is not about people. The one requirement for a steward (manager) is faithfulness. We answer to the Lord of the harvest, the Head of the church, the King of kings and Lord of lords. We don't need to build the church, because he said, "I will build my church." We were left with one priority, "seek first my kingdom." We were left with one activity, "stay busy in the work till I come." We were left with one reminder, "the servant only needs to please his master."
As I heard one pastor put it, "I would rather BURN OUT than RUST OUT in the ministry!
You need the church and the church needs you. I'm not ready for my church to die, because Christ died for the church. He wants his church to fire up, hold up, study up, stand up, wake up, toughen up, and fess up! (See Revelation, chapters 2 and 3).
- Do you understand that the church is NOT man's invention, but God's design?
- Are you burdened for the local church to which you belong?
- Are you praying for it fervently?
- Are you ready and willing to serve diligently?
- Do you desire to do all you can to prevent the death of your church?