I shared a meal with a pastor of a recovering church recently. The church had gone through a long decline, watching long time members pass or move away. Its financial support became fragile and its future uncertain. The one thing that we both agreed on was that it would have been only a matter of a few years before this local expression of Jesus’ church would have faced the difficult question of whether it was still viable or not, needing to close its doors.
It happens. Churches that once were fresh and vital stop renewing themselves with people crossing the line of faith. The congregation grays. The once vibrant youth ministry degenerates into the few remaining kids who will graduate and move on with their spiritual life somewhere else that is not their ‘parent’s church.’ The church will stop being the obvious choice of ‘already’ Christians moving into the neighborhood as new local churches are launched that attract their attention.
Does being an older congregation have to mean the slow dying of your church? I know of a church that is over 200 years old which still touches the lives of hundreds of people. To continue to be a living congregation, it has had to ‘revision’ itself a number of times. Each generation of leaders has had to refocus the church on its reason for existing and guide the people of the church to remember why Jesus called them together in the first place.
No, aging is not the problem for local churches. If you asked me to name the most debilitating reasons churches die, I would point to two—the failure of the congregation to take Jesus seriously about being the church and the failure to see the lost.
Failing to be the church is a pretty broad statement with plenty of potential interpretations. But I think most church leaders get it when I point to the mission statements that characterize many congregations. They all go something like this: “We exist to bring glory to God by making passionate disciples.” Many varieties of this exist, but most churches recognize that the core of being the church is knowing that Jesus is our head. All authority has been given to him and, in turn, he has given to his people the mission of making disciples everywhere.
Declining churches have forgotten this. Their mission statements still declare that this is their mission. But what they really believe in is comfort. The comfort of each other’s company. The comfort of the old truths being taught. The comfort of their generation’s way of ‘doing church.’ The comfort of having paid their dues, of having sent out missionaries overseas, of days of glory in the past. They have become ‘Dones’ without even leaving the church. They are done with their personal investment in Jesus’ mission for his church and have created a safe society where they can be with people like themselves.
They are still busy, though. Still raising money for worthy causes, still attending important church events as long as they are physically able, still studying their Bibles, still praying for people, still showing care for each other. But they have stopped being the church that Jesus commissioned them to be. Unless they become convinced of this, their local fellowship someday will cease to exist.
This leads me to the second, related reason that most local churches do not last 200 plus years. They stop seeing the lost. I do not mean that they do not believe there are lost people in their neighborhoods or that they do not know anyone who is lost. They just become spiritually blind to them, sometimes willfully so. The church of the pastor who shared a meal with me had been in its building for many years. But though at is zenith it had hundreds of attenders, people who lived in the homes right across the street, people by the way who could be seen as obviously unchurched by the congregation as they drove weekly into their church’s parking lot, did not attend the church. No one even knew the names of these people. And though the church had children’s programs that the kids on the block would have been attracted to, no one ever reached out to invite them in.
These are the faceless lost. I have been in churches where no one prays for the lost or even has a friendship with a lost person. I have also had the privilege of being part of local churches that knew who the lost were and prayed for the lost by name. I have seen churches go into neighborhoods like this one and seek ways to connect with those who were open to the gospel, or at least open to a relationship.
Which is why this church is recovering. Intentionally, the people decided they were going to renew their mission as a church. They began to find ways to impact the parents and children that lived across the street as well as other places in their town. Now these people are crossing the street to come attend their services. This year the church has baptized more people than ever in recent years. The church is growing in a fresh way. Certainly there are challenges. The finances have not caught up with the need yet, although the pastor pointed to steady growth in that area as new believers become more discipled. If this church keeps up its current focus, it will possibly grow to be larger than it has ever been in the past in the coming years. And then it will have to revision itself again. And again. And again. Each new generation will have to say ‘yes’ to Jesus’ mission and see the lost for themselves.
Perhaps you see your church on the way up or down. You recognize the time has come to rethink your church’s mission. Or you know that the people of your congregation have stopped seeing the lost too. Need help?
Converge Southeast offers you several tools. If you are seeking to revision your church, we can help you with Upgrade. Upgrade is a one year interactive process which leads to congregation to examine its spiritual life, its structures, seek a renewed vision from God and plan strategies on how to reach the lost with new eyes. Upgrade works with the pastor to help him develop as a leader so he can guide the congregation in revisioning itself.
Perhaps you feel that your church is pretty healthy in many ways, so that a full year process is not necessary. But you know that the people of your church are not seeing the lost the way they should. Converge offers a training tool called Networking. This simple training process helps people rethink their calling as witnesses, helps them to identify lost people in their network of friends and family, teaches them to pray for them by name, and guides them in building relationships with the people in their network. They will also be taught how to put their own witness for Jesus into words for the time when the door is open for them to share it.
May your congregation renew its mission. May your people glorify God by making passionate disciples.