The doctor told my dad he was dying.
Our family physician was a kind man, a true friend of the family. But he was firm. Dad was on the short path to death.
My father, then 58 years old, had been smoking for four decades. I suppose his time in the military in World War II proved to be the primary impetus to his taking on the bad habit. His peers smoked. There were hardly any voices suggesting the evils of smoking then. And it proved to be a relief and escape from the ravages of war he witnessed day after day.
To be clear, our doctor had not declared to my dad that he was terminal. At this point, there was no cancer present. The only sign was an early onset of emphysema.
But the kind physician could see all the signs. Dad had to make major and dramatic changes or he would die within a few years. Indeed, it might already be too late regardless of any changes he made. He never stopped smoking.
Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 61. He died one month after his 62nd birthday.
Many churches are dying.
Some are so sick that they are a few years, perhaps just months, from death. But too many refuse to do anything. Any potential and dramatic turnaround will not take place because these churches do nothing.
Why? Why do these dying churches walk resolutely down the path of death? Why don’t they attempt something dramatic, something bold? I have worked with too many of these churches. Allow me to share six common responses to these questions.
- They refuse to admit they are sick, very sick. I have worked with churches whose attendance has declined by over 80 percent. They have no gospel witness in the community. They have not seen a person come to Christ in two decades. But they say they are fine. They say nothing is wrong.
- They are still waiting on the “magic bullet” pastor. They reason, if only we could find the right pastor, we would be fine. But they bring in pastor after pastor. Each leaves after a short-term stint, frustrated that the congregation was so entrenched in its ways. So the church starts the search again for the magic bullet pastor.
- They fail to accept responsibility. I recently met with the remaining members of a dying church. Their plight was the community’s fault. Those people should be coming to their church. It was the previous five pastors’ fault. Or it was the fault of culture. If everything returned to the Bible belt mentality of decades earlier, we would be fine.
- They are not willing to change . . . at all. A friend asked me to meet with the remaining members of a dying church. These members were giddy with excitement. They viewed me as the great salvific hope for their congregation. But my blunt assessment was not pleasing to them, especially when I talked about change. Finally, one member asked if they would have to look at the words of a hymn on a screen instead of a hymnal if they made changes. I stood in stunned silence, and soon walked away from the church that would close its doors six months later.
- Their “solutions” are all inwardly focused. They don’t want to talk about reaching the ethnically changing community. They want to know how they can make church more comfortable and palatable for the remnant of members.
- They desire to return to 1985. Or 1972. Or 1965. Or 1959. Those were the good old days. If we could just do church like we did then, everything would be fine.
These churches are increasing in number. Culture indeed has little patience with a me-focused congregation, much less so than, say, 15 years ago.
Is there hope for these churches? Will these dying congregations indeed die?
I have seen God intervene a few times in such situations. But, in every case, the church has turned its face to Him, and forsaken all of their own preferences, desires, and human-centered traditions.
But most dying churches will die.
I pray that your church, if it is indeed on the path to death, will be the rare exception, to the glory of God.
Posted on August 9, 2017
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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