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.”
A friend in that city told me the previous tenants–my friend’s predecessor and his family–were constantly sick for no reason anyone could find. Workers repainted the interior of the house every year.
“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.”
The minister said, “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 seen them in the process of dying. The culprit–the killer, the perpetrator, the murderer–is 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.
Recently, a young pastor who served a local church during his seminary years, commented to me about the congregation he’s now serving. “It’s the oldest church of our denomination in this state,” he said. “But in many ways, it’s far younger than the New Orleans church I tried to pastor.”
Two texts come to mind. “No one, having drunk old wine, immediately prefers the new, for he says, ‘The old is better'” (Luke 5:39). That’s the problem, and it’s why the Lord said in the verses immediately preceding that “new wine must be put into new wineskins.”
Godly old people–and I want to think this applies to old faithful churches–still can do much for the Lord. “They will still bear fruit in old age; They shall be fresh and flourishing” (Psalm 92:14).
2. Churches begin to suffocate and die when they new longer welcome new members with different ideas.
It’s not only pastors who hear that death chant called “We never did it that way before.” New church members 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 point-blank when they made a suggestion, “This is not that kind of church.” Soon they moved on.
The frustrating thing to an observer like myself–one who loves churches and hates to see any make Kevorkian-like choices sealing their doom–is that those same church leaders will turn right around and lament, “Why don’t people come help us in our ministry. We need some young adults to help us reach new people.”
They just don’t get it. They made the decision for their church to die, and 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 to like the present state of affairs. Pastors especially are in danger of growing complacent when the numbers are bottoming out but the finances are still sufficient. There is little panic so long as a lazy pastor is still getting his check.
Good and godly leaders are always pushing the congregation to reach out, minister, grow, give, and serve. When they quit–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–mainly its present leadership–sees all these efforts as trouble-making, go ahead and call the undertaker. That church is gone.
A pastor friend who read this says we need to emphasize that there are proper forums for expressing dissent in the church, that it really is trouble-making and counterproductive when criticism is lavishly doled out right and left. True enough. But, many churches have no way for people to express their dissatisfaction with what’s going on.
A friend who changed the organizational makeup of his congregation which eliminated all monthly business meetings told me later that was a mistake. “It frees the little group of power brokers who fought me on everything 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.”
When I was pastoring, I once put a blank half-sheet of paper as a bulletin insert on which I asked members to let me know 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, that if they have none, they will share the poison with one another and nothing good will come from that.
5. Churches quit breathing when they quit praying.
I can hear someone protesting, “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.
One of the first questions I ask on arriving at a church where I’m to preach that morning is, “Pastor, tell me about your people. Do they feel comfortable coming to the altar to pray during the public invitation?”
Rarely is the answer, “They do. We will have quite a number on their knees at the altar in every service.”
Usually, it’s a variation of, “I wish. No, our people don’t do much of that.”
A bad sign. 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 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 someone getting saved and acting like it is the greatest thing in the world. Which it is.
I do not claim to know the mind of the Lord as to which churches He tells, “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 fact, I’m not sure He says that at all. Rather, it seems He leaves it in the hands of the leaders whom He has sent to decide by their actions–their faith, their courage, their obedience–whether a church will live or die.
An awesome responsibility.
My one piece of advice to any church on life-support 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 walk away saying you tried. But if you do nothing and the church dies, you will be among those blamed.
Anyone finding echoes of II Kings 7:4 and Ezekiel 3:19 in this, go to the head of the class.
“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.”