Monday, November 5, 2012

Stages of a Dying Church

Matthew Boyd has a blog worth reading called From The Outside Looking In. He wrote a post recently asking what seems to be a simple question about church involvement in missions entitled Does The Progress of Your Mission Efforts Depend on Money Within An Organization? 

I started out with a simple comment:

 A church that is active in building and sending its own missionaries, in the local community, region, and around the world, is a healthy and Biblical church. Without this aspect of a church's ministry the church would turn its God-given resources in on itself and implode. The mechanism for doing this is the idea that the goal of evangelism is to get people to join, or even just to come to, the church. The mentality is that the church is there to meet their felt needs with the hopes that they will pay their dues. The struggle at this point is between those who think the church should change everything to draw more people and those who think the church should do things the way it has done for hundreds of years. The changers what new people to come to church to be ministered to. The non-changers want the people already paying their fair share of the dues to be catered to with services as they have always been. The point that is missed is that the struggle needs to be to make the current members understand that having accepted the gospel and being God's children means that we need to take the gospel out where people have never heard and disciple them with it whether they end up joining your church or not.

I ended up with something longer than I could post as a single comment. So I'm posting the rest of it here. I talk about the stages of a dying church...

Churches in the cycle of self-consumption go through progressively painful steps toward their own destruction as we are observing today:

1. The Social Club stage. People come and pay their dues and enjoy the company of other people as they are ministered to by charismatic people who have to be in control. These people often feed off the clubby nature of the church because their desire to control is aided by the desire of members to not have to do too much. These ore most often not the pastors of the church, but the deacons or church council members. Pastors who don't see this stage won't teach against it and may cater to the controllers because they fear their influence in the church, or because they tithe from a healthy portfolio. If a pastor can't turn things around in this stage, the church will go through major upheavals in later stages. But a certain amount of tact and wisdom is required to pull it off lest he inadvertently throw the church into stage 2:

2. Non-powerful members of the church realize their duty to serve God instead of just paying for others in the church to serve them. When they ask for help from the church, financially or otherwise, they are met with obstacles*. These obstacles are placed in their way by the ones in control who like the clubby nature of the church as I have described. The ones in control become upset because the Christians who desire to serve God biblically require vested leadership. This threatens the power base of the ones in control and they fear losing the status quo of their clubby church. The longer this goes on, the stronger the obstacles become and they often become codified. This is where the church enters into phase 3.

3. The people who want to minister begin to find the obstacles insurmountable and they begin to leave the church in favor of other congregations open to their ministering. I have often found in many of these churches where the ones in power will actually counsel those who want to minister that they should leave the church. Churches in this stage will dwindle in size and struggle painfully sometimes for a long time with being able to pay the bills, much less a pastor. I'm not talking about very small churches who have this struggle naturally, but by churches once built to accommodate a much larger congregation who are no longer able to maintain the physical plant. Most often, I've seen the church dissolve. The property goes up for sale to a new or growing church or is renovated for some other purpose.

Can a church come back after having slipped from stage 1? Possibly, but I've never observed it. Once a church denies the gospel to the rest of the world, it denies it to its own members. If any church life grows back, it's not a biblical church (e.g. the prosperity gospel).

I've seen this happen too often in the states and I'm familiar with this pattern. I don't have anyone to credit by my own observations. Someone may be able to refine them. But the material in Matthew's article is inextricably linked to the health of a church, I believe as according to what I have observed, and I think God allows this pattern to lessen the impact of sinful churches and increase the effectiveness of healthy churches.


*These obstacles can be unnecessary procedural difficulties (red tape), de-funding from the budget, the decay of orthodox doctrines, etc.

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