On any given Sunday, this is how myriad pastors in traditional African American Baptist congregations invite the unconverted to Christian discipleship and the unchurched to membership. Tragically, tens of thousands of churches across denominational and racial lines are closing their doors, never to open them again.
According to some estimates, anywhere from 4,000 to 7,000 local congregations die each year. Leadership Journal maintains that 340,000 churches in America have plateaued, are declining or are on the verge of death. When Jesus said that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the church, he was not talking about local congregations, per se. Since New Testament times, churches have been plagued with serious existential threats, and many have come and gone. Great cathedrals in Europe are now museums, and even grand church buildings in America have been converted into clubs. It may seem improbable that such is the case in Mississippi; if the South is the Bible Belt, then surely our state is the belt buckle. But even in church-saturated Mississippi, the writing is on the wall.
Churches don’t just die. They get sick and remain so for a considerable length of time. In “Autopsy of a Deceased Church,” Thom Rainer identifies 10 contributing symptoms. These include rapid pastoral turnover, the lack of evangelistic enthusiasm, nostalgia for a bygone era and a refusal to be community-minded. Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson point out even more reasons for church decline in their book “Comeback Churches.” What all of these churches have in common is that at some point they ceased to be missionary, Christ-centered, and biblically relevant to their ministry context. In such churches, pastors are becoming pallbearers, and the members are becoming mourners. This should not be.
But changing such places of worship is difficult. If it wasn’t, so many of them wouldn’t be dying. But there is hope. With God, revitalization is possible. Harry Reeder, author of “From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church,” succinctly defines church revitalization as “a commitment by the church leadership to biblically lead the church back to spiritual health and vitality.” This differs from revival, which alone is the Lord’s work. We can pray for and preach about revival, but God alone sends it according to God’s sovereign timing. But revitalization is the intentional stewardship and responsibility of Spirit-filled leaders in dying churches who take the risks to please and glorify God anew. There must be positive change and the acceptance of God’s preferred future. Denial or resistance will only lead to certain demise. But pastoral and lay leaders can bring about transformation in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Reeder is again helpful in showing us a biblical model for this work. Using the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:5) as a model, he points out that any church today wanting to come alive again must remember, repent, and recover the things you did at first. Remembering our past trains us to glorify God for the great things he once did through a dying church; this inspires leaders and members to trust God to do such wonderful things again. This is especially vital for established churches with older members. It reminds them of better days and hopefully encourages them to imagine how they may do similar good works now.
Though there is much in your church’s past worth celebrating, there are yet many things to lament about. A church wouldn’t be dying if everything in the past was glorious. Repentance acknowledges that the primary reason most churches are declining is because of institutionalized sin. Too many leaders want to create more programs or add a new service to avoid dealing with the serpent in the sanctuary. But this will only lead to more stagnation or unhealthy numerical growth. The intention of revitalization is to get better, not just bigger. Thus Reeder says churches must move from covered-up sin to confessed sin. I believe this is the hardest but greatest element in making dying churches healthy again. At some point God’s people must resolve to fix what’s broken by telling the truth and making things right. I read about one church who addressed its horrible reputation by committing to holiness. A tangible example of this was their publishing a letter of apology in the local paper that detailed their faults and invited the community to forgive them for not being a loving, welcoming faith community. Something like this is painful but can stimulate a renewed sense of God’s grace and reconciliation. Jesus Christ — who is full of grace and truth — honors our humility. God’s grace is sufficient for our weaknesses.
Lastly, the church that remembers and repents is ready to recover the things that matter most about being the church. Recovering first things means again to make Christ preeminent in our worship and ministry, pray fervently, live out the Gospel before each other and in the community, and so on. Said differently, it means that we move from being a social club to being a church. When we remember that we exist for the glory of God alone, we can submit our wills to the lordship of Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church, his body. The church is healthier when it seeks God’s best and not our preferences.
If you know that your church is dying, I invite you to do something about it. Pray for direction. Tell the truth. Seek God’s wisdom. Assemble a revitalization team. And then get to work, knowing that the journey to wholeness is long but rewarding. Our communities need vibrant, healthy churches. May your doors remain opened to the surprising work of the Holy Spirit as you determine to live out the Gospel as