The day the church begins to die

My preacher friend lives in a brand-spanking new home provided by the ministry he heads. “They had to tear down the old one,” he told me. “Mildew was everywhere and after years of trying to cure it, they gave up.”

His predecessor and his family were constantly sick for no reason anyone could find. Workers repainted the interior of the house every year.

Here is what he told me…

When they tore the house down, they found the culprit. There was a pipe underneath the house–not in any of the architect’s original drawings–that was constantly leaking water into the foundation.

At one point, in an attempt to cure the problem, the ministry head had storm windows installed throughout the house. He was sealing the house, but it had the opposite effect of what he intended.

An architect told me, ‘That day the house began to die. With the windows sealed, it could no longer breathe.’

The day the house began to die.

An intriguing line.

Churches also begin to die when they can no longer breathe.

I’ve seen churches die, and I’ve seen them in the process of dying. The culprit–the killer, the perpetrator, the murderer–is frequently suffocation. An inability to breathe.

1. Churches begin to suffocate when they no longer welcome change.

Change is life. Our bodies are always in the process of sloughing off old dead cells and replacing them with new ones. We’ve all seen stores and restaurants go out of business when they refuse to update their menus, freshen their decor, and modernize their approach.

The church content to minister in the ways of the 1950s–or even the 1990’s!–will find itself ministering to fewer and fewer people.

This has nothing to do with the age of the members.  God’s senior saints can be youthful and energetic.  Psalm 92:14 promises, “They will still bear fruit in old age; they will be fresh and flourishing.”

2. Churches begin to suffocate and die when they no longer welcome new members with fresh ideas.

Not only innovative pastors hear the death chant “We never did it that way before.” New church members often hear it, too. I’ve known of dedicated and godly people moving into a city and joining a struggling church, one desperately in need of a transfusion of life and health, only to be told when they made a suggestion, “This is not that kind of church,” and “that’s not how we do things around here.” Soon they moved on.

Then, I’ve heard those same church leaders lament, “Why don’t people join us?  We need some young adults to help us reach new people.”

They just don’t get it. They opted for their church to die, and now are in denial about it.

3. Churches speed up the process of suffocation when their leaders grow to prefer the status quo.

All of these are inter-related, of course, and the lines separating one from another are not well-defined. One reason new members with ideas are unwelcome is that leaders have grown comfortable with the present state of affairs. A pastor may grow complacent when the numbers are bottoming out but the finances are still sufficient. There is little panic so long as a lazy pastor still gets his paycheck on time.

Good and godly leaders are always pushing the congregation to reach out, minister, grow, give, and serve. When they quit pushing–when they find it more comfortable and less stressful to accept how things are now–the church begins to die.

4. Churches begin to suffocate when they discourage dissent.

No church makes that final journey to the ecclesiastical cemetery without a few men and women of faith protesting. They voice their concerns in business meetings, they visit the pastor with urgent pleas, they turn Sunday School classes into prayer meetings.

If the church–and by that we mean its present leadership–sees all these efforts as trouble-making and rocking the boat, then go ahead and call the undertaker. That church is gone.

A friend who led his church to eliminate all monthly business meetings told me later that was a mistake. “It frees the little group of power brokers from any accountability to the members. If we still had monthly churchwide business meetings, members could stand and ask why something was done and who was responsible.”

In my last pastorate, I inserted a blank half-sheet of paper in the Sunday bulletin and invited members to give me their questions, complaints, and criticisms. A lay leader said, “Preacher, you sure you want to do that? You’re asking for trouble.” I told him people need a proper place to register their discontent, and if they have none, they will share the poison with one another and nothing good will come from that.

A wise pastor will welcome different opinions and even criticism.

5. Churches quit breathing when they quit praying.

Someone protests, “But every church prays. Every worship service has prayers.”

They do. But we’re talking about the kind of soul-searching, heart-felt, deep prayers in which lives are emptied out before God and Heaven is called into action.

In my retirement ministry, wherever I go to preach, I urge congregations to fill the altar with praying saints. Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”  He told His audience they had turned it into a den of thieves (Mark 11).  I don’t think we have done that, but we have turned God’s house into a place of worship, praise, fellowship, teaching, and doctrine.  But rarely a house of prayer.  And we are the poorer for it.

When we cease to pray, we cut ourselves and our church off from Heaven’s lifeline. By our prayerlessness, we seal up our people and leave them to their own devices and resources. That day, the church begins to die.

6. Churches begin dying when the Holy Scriptures no longer occupy a central place in their services, in their classes, and in their preaching.

“All Scripture is God-breathed,” Paul told young Timothy (II Timothy 3:16). For my money, that does not mean God “once” breathed out those life-giving words, but He is still breathing in and through them. They are alive. The writer of Hebrews said, “For the word of God is living and powerful….” (Hebrews 4:12).

Let the Scriptures take a back seat to performances, guest speakers, book reviews, issue-discussion, and even ministry, and the life-breath begins to go out of the church.

7. Churches suffocate when they turn their focus inward and use the great bulk of their resources and energy on themselves.

Someone says, “Yes, but doesn’t the Bible tell us to take care of the flock?” It does indeed. That would be John 21:15-17 and Acts 20:28, among other places.

However, part of “caring for the flock” is to get them into the fields where they do their work, represent their Lord, bear fruit, and come up against the enemy. Shield them from challenge, protect them from burdens, isolate them from attacks from the enemy, and insulate them from all questions and dissent, and you sign their death warrant.

Churches exist for evangelism as fires exist by burning.

Nothing puts new life into an old, introverted congregation like going into that broken down trailer park at the edge of town and beginning to minister to its residents. Nothing enlivens and refreshes a dull church service like people getting saved and rejoicing like it is the greatest thing in the world. Which it is.

Our Lord left us an unforgettable image of a frustrated farmer.   “For years I have come seeking fruit on this tree and find none. Cut it down. Why does it take up space?” (Luke 13:7)   In my opinion, God decides to put some churches out of business because all they are doing is taking up space.

My one piece of advice to any church on life-support and struggling to get its breath is this: If you sit here as you are now, you will die. So, get up and do something. Take a chance. What do you have to lose, for heaven’s sake?! If you do something and it doesn’t work and the church does not survive, at least you can say you tried. But if you do nothing and the church dies, you will be among those sharing the blame.

Anyone finding echoes of II Kings 7:4 and Ezekiel 3:19 in that paragraph, go to the head of the class.

Let us pray—

“O Father, give us people who love your church as Christ did (and gave Himself for her). Give us leaders of courage and faith, who value Thy pleasure more than their careers. Give us life-saving ideas and ministry-birthing insights and a new freshness in our work for Thee.

“Then, give us the will to stand before complacent congregations and self-satisfied members who would let the church die before making a change, and take a stand for Christ’s sake as well as the sake of the unreached multitudes who can still be reached for Jesus by a vital, functioning church in this neighborhood.

“Lord, give us members and leaders alike who see that in following the Holy Spirit, they have nothing to lose except their chains and dullness. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.”

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