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Why Churches Die

Sounds like a morbid title, but the truth is, it’s happening everywhere, in every denomination and every city. It’s time to face it and recognize the symptoms. It’s time also, to do something about it.

The Slow Erosion of Churches has been going on for a long time. It is rare that most members even see it. Erosion that takes a long time is the worst kind because members of the church see no urgency to change. In his book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Thom Rainer writes, “They don’t see the decline which has been going on in front of their eyes”.

And so, when I am hired to make transitional recommendations as an interim minister, I am usually met with raised eyebrows and resistance right away. Especially when I suggest that their history may be bogging things down. Not what happened in the past, but how members don’t let go of the past to meet the present needs.

In every church I’ve pastored, church members just don’t see it. I’m frequently hired to help church members take steps toward church restoration. The first step we look at is: Coming to Terms with History.

As an RN and church consultant, I’ve spent years taking assessments to determine health of persons, families, and churches and what is needed to grow. I know, I know, I’m just a ‘bridge minister’, but you didn’t think I could say nothing, did you? I can’t help myself. It’s in the genes. And besides, we are a couple of weeks away from the beginning of Lent and to me that’s a good enough reason to look at church vitality and health.

So, this blog includes some health checkup questions to think about and perhaps even discuss if you’d like.

Health Check-up questions:

1. What was your church like 20 years ago? Talk with others and get an honest assessment. Are there any signs of gradual erosion?

2. How is the neglect of building the temple described in Haggai chapter 1 like gradual erosion today? Take time to read through this chapter and reflect.

3. What do you think God meant in Haggai 1:9 by the phrase “while each of you is busy with his own house”?

Rainer writes, “Most churches in America that close don’t talk much about cataclysmic events as the cause of closing the doors. Rather what we see is a slow erosion. If they had seen it, there would be no need to close.”

It is the single most common thread of church decline, yet no one sees it. Why? Because even when a pastor is hired to bring change, this is what is often expressed with a great deal of emotion, “We will die before we see that happen here.”

And so, they did. I’ve witnessed to full deaths of churches in the last 3 years.

These churches weren’t fighting over doctrine, or Christian morality or biblical truths. They were fighting for the past. The church buildings. The good old days. The way it used to be. The way we want it today. The past became their ‘Hero’. (Autopsy of a Deceased Church, Rainer).

Heroes are wonderful, but when the past becomes the hero, there is no future.

According to Rainer the signs of a church facing certain death include:

1.worship styles that members refuse to change

2. fixed orders of worship,

3. the time worship services happen,

4. buildings and rooms (especially if named after someone from the past).

5.some would not accept any new pastor except the one pastor who served thirty years ago.

I’ve seen this last one far too many times. It’s like chasing after a ghost.

But the number one thing that begins to happen in dying churches is becoming focused on their own needs and not the needs of others. Inward, not outward focus will kill a church every time. I will hear things like, “This is the way it’s always been done” which is just another way of saying, “me first, not what the community wants or needs.”

The community in Hartford includes the homeless, businesses, diversity, and a plethora of young adults who have moved into some very nice apartments. What do all these people need?

Hanging on to the hero called ‘past’ is a sure past says that the church prefers death to change. It sends the wrong message to the community.

Health Check-up:

1. Are there any areas in the church where we see resistance to change simply because of the preferences of members?

2. What is the common theme among the heroes of Hebrews 11?

3. Look at Hebrews 11:13-16 and discuss it in light of churches that die holding on to the past.

Over the next 2 months, we will examine parts of how the church dies but most importantly “Church Health & Restoration”. Using principles from Autopsy of a Deceased Church, we will examine how we revitalize and what needs to be done as we travel into Lent and get closer to Resurrection Sunday.

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