In the past decade, I have had the privilege of working with many churches through the process of “repenting and remembering” that I mentioned in the previous chapter. I have noticed some common themes in churches that desperately need the invigoration of new life. Many of them show the following characteristics.
They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.
Dying churches love to discuss, debate, define, and describe. They live for business meetings—even if few people attend them. In the absence of meaningful ministry through the church, they often spend their time meeting together to make oftentimes meaningless decisions. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that they simply don’t understand how to reach the community. They can’t comprehend how to begin to make real and significant change, but they can still meet and go through the motions of the things they have done for decades. They begin to find comfort and security in the well-known processes of church life. It seems that as long as they continue the processes, they are keeping the church alive. It must also be said that sometimes their insistence on maintaining highly structured processes reflects a lack of trust in each other or certainly a lack of trust in leadership. They want to make sure no one “oversteps” his authority. The lack of trust and need for tight control is but another sign of a dysfunctional church.
They value their own preferences over the needs of the unreached.
Dying churches tend to make their preferences paramount. Those preferences can include music, programs, preaching styles, uses of the building, resources shared with those outside the church compared to resources used for those within the church, and a host of other things. The point is this: Most members of the congregation focus on their own desires in these decisions instead of what would meet the needs of people who don’t know Jesus. They may passionately deny that they value their preferences over the needs of the lost, but here are a couple of tests.
Interview some unchurched people in the community. Ask them if: (a) they would prefer to sit in pews where they might have to crawl over someone who chose to sit on the aisle, or if they would prefer comfortable padded chairs with an appropriate “personal” space between them. Ask them: (b) if they would feel more at ease and comfortable if they were served coffee and allowed to drink it in the worship center. If the majority of the unchurched answered “yes” to A and B, how willing might the dying church be to pivot on a dime and make those changes? A church whose pursuit, with the heart of Christ, is the salvation of souls will thoughtfully and sacrificially consider the interests of others more valuable than the mere personal preferences of the establishment.
They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
They may want young people in the congregation. They may complain endlessly about the lack of young people in the church, but they have no strategic plan in place to identify and place into positions of real and meaningful leadership young leaders, or worse yet, they tend to fight any attempt to put young people in charge of significant ministry efforts. If they do put a young person in a leadership position, the church micromanages him or criticizes him until he just leaves. Leaders will lead. If you don’t provide young leaders the opportunity to lead in your church, they will eventually go somewhere else where they can lead. You can’t attract and maintain young people if you don’t afford them the chance to lead.
They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
Members of dying churches rarely live within walking distance of the church. They have typically long ago moved to other parts of town. What was once a community church has become a commuter church. Members drive to the church building, park their cars, walk inside, and conduct their programs then walk back outside, get back in their cars, and drive home. It matters little to most members that the church is even in that neighborhood. Most significantly, the church pays little attention to the needs of the community, and the community pays little attention to the ebbs and flows of the church. If the church closed tomorrow, it is likely that no one in the neighborhood would fear losing their quality of life or that the neighborhood would be negatively affected.
They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
Declining churches reach for programs and personalities they believe will turn the church around without embracing the changes needed to become healthy again. And it’s hard to blame them for this predisposition since many past church-growth methodologies relied heavily on both. No doubt, as a dying church reflects on its heyday of growth, members recall a particular pastor or two who, by sheer force of personal charisma and leadership, moved the church to a new level. Or they recall a program or series of programs that once attracted all ages of people to become involved in the life of the church.
With that history in mind, dying churches often think that applying programs and hiring personalities will be easy fixes to their problems. They quickly discover that neither fixes anything. In fact, their desire for a “silver bullet” program or personality reinforces their belief that they don’t have to make major changes or repent of past mistakes or sacrifice their preferences for the needs of the unchurched, but they just have to add one more program or hire one more professional to fix the problem. In essence, they are still trying to use primarily attractional methods in a community that no longer responds to those methods. It is frustrating and confusing for a dying church to accept that what worked so well in the past may, in fact, be hastening its demise.
They tend to blame the community for a lack of response and, in time, grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.
Declining churches are often slow to believe the problem lies within. Instead of embracing Jesus’ call to transform their nearby community, they tend to believe they need protection from it. They may make attempts at community engagement. They may have a block party or give away food and clothing, but when no one attends Sunday school or morning worship as a result of these attempts, the church’s resentments are reinforced. “They will take our food, jump in our bounce house, eat our cotton candy, and we never see them again” is a refrain I have heard many times.
Dying churches often mistakenly assume the community is there for them. They see the community as the resource from which they can grow, when in fact they need to understand that the truth is just the opposite. The community is not there for the church; the church is there for the community. We don’t have block parties to get people from the community into our building; we have block parties to get the people in our building into the lives of the people in the community. The fact that the community doesn’t respond is ultimately seen by the dying church as a problem with the community, rather than a problem with the church.
Mark Clifton, Reclaiming Glory: Creating a Gospel Legacy throughout North America (Nashville: B&H, 2016).