revival

What Can We Learn from Dead Churches?

Photo credit: unsplash.com KHillacre
Photo credit: unsplash.com KHillacre

Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have been cycles of life and death. Cycles of revival and decline are evident by their impact upon the culture around them—both good and bad.

What about individual churches? You can find similar cycles of revival and decline. Some churches seem to thrive, while others struggle to survive.

Is death and decline an inevitable destination for every church? Not if we're willing to learn from history.

Thom S Rainer's book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, doesn't sound like a fun read. I wouldn't call it fun, but it is enlightening, and in the end, encouraging.

I could easily see various churches I've known or been involved with that identified with Rainer's post-life church assessment. These are actual churches Dr Rainer worked with and knew.

He begins with a story of a church as if it had been a patient, in denial of her real condition. She no longer had vision and followed a familiar path to death. It's a sobering look at fourteen different churches who died. The author provides insights as to why, and later gives twelve responses to the question, "Is There Hope...?"

What is learned from the autopsy

Amazon-Autopsy_Church
Amazon-Autopsy_Church

All the insights Rainer writes about are helpful, but a few struck home in a sad way. He speaks of the Slow Erosion (Chap 2) that takes place, and of the inward and rigid focus a church develops.

In the The Past Is the Hero (Chap 3), a fixation develops on the "good old days." I've seen this too often in churches who experienced high points during the Jesus Movement, but this applies to other churches also. Rainer says this was the "most pervasive and common thread" in all of the autopsies, which created a backwards-looking vision.

This nostalgic, inward focus eventually leads to a church with ...No Clear Purpose (Chap 10). I've seen this way too often, churches that "do church," but have no clear direction or purpose except to exist.

Out of place and out of sorts

Rainer's small, succinct chapters yield insights into churches who didn't change, though the community around them did (Chap 4). Other churches rarely prayed together (Chap 9), and others became ...Obsessed Over the Facilities (Chap 11).

A chapter that struck a sad, familiar chord is where, The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission (Chap 6). As a missionary and pastor, this one grieves me the most. The focus of the church becomes so inward that the command to "Go!" is set aside and forgotten.

I see this in both a lack of local evangelistic outreach and disinterest in world missions. This is pervasive throughout America today, along with a diminished focus on discipleship and equipping God's people.

Another great insight looked at the life stages and decrease in pastoral tenure (Chap 8). Rainer lays out five general stages of relationship between a pastor and the church. From my own experience, I found these to be accurate and remember going through or seeing each stage.

Is there hope?

An autopsy isn't fun, unless you're a forensic doctor I guess. So the book doesn't end on a down note but with hope.

Rainer lays out twelve responses to give hope. These are laid out in three categories of churches— those with sick symptoms, very sick, and dying.

You might think the last category isn't going to have much hope, but you'd be wrong. It's all a matter of focus and perspective, which is lost in a sick or dying church.

Final thoughts

I was sent this book by my friend, Pastor Bill Holdridge, who established Poimen Ministries, and graciously allows me to be part of this ministry to pastors and churches. He's seen all of this more than I have. If you're a pastor and concerned about the health of your church, I encourage you to contact Bill or any of us with Poimen Ministries.

So I recommend Dr Rainer's book for any pastor, no matter what your current role may be in church. It is well worth the read.

Here's a blog post of Dr Rainer's that echoes much of the same issues in his book– 8 Reasons Many Churches Are Living in the 1980's

Another resource I recommend is the blog of Pastor Karl Vaters, especially for pastors of small churches– New Small Church. Karl has a clear focus and purpose that is healthy and outward, and is a great encouragement to many.

If any of this post encourages you, or you see its value for someone else, please feel free to share it! Thanks for reading!

The Search

©CCCM – the Tent

©CCCM – the Tent

During the sixties, I was part of the counterculture movement seeking spiritual truth. In the early seventies, I became part of the Jesus Movement.

This movement was neither organized nor guided by any church or religious organization. It was the work of God in people searching for spiritual truth and encountering Jesus in a personal relationship.

“It’s not about religion, but relationship,” was a common expression in those days. Young people popularized the Jesus Movement, including those known as hippies who joined the developing counterculture of the 1960s.

A spiritual vacuum

A spiritual vacuum existed in those days. For the most part, traditional churches did not reach the young people of that generation. Several elements in our current decade remind me of that era.

Today, traditional and established churches are not reaching the young people of this generation, including those raised in Christian homes. Many surveys show a strong trend toward young people leaving churches in droves.[i]

In my own search for truth as a youth, I sampled wisdom from various religions and philosophies that surrounded me in abundance and diversity.

Raised in a nominally Christian home, even confirmed in the faith of the Episcopal Church at the age of twelve, I found my Christian moorings too weak to keep me from drifting into varied experiences, philosophies, and religious encounters. These encounters brought plenty of confusion and uncertainty.

During the late 1960's, I had developed a ritual of reading the Bible every morning. Even so, I still used drugs and alcohol, practiced transcendental meditation, and played and wrote music, along with other experiences typical of that time.

Through it all, I was coming to believe Jesus was an important element of true spirituality. During this period, a friend invited me to a certain church in Southern California, which later became a mega church within the Jesus Movement.[ii]

Thrown out

I attended an evening service where a very young but quite charismatic evangelist was teaching the Bible. At the end of the study, he gave an invitation to “accept Christ,”[iii] but I wasn’t ready to do this.

After the service, I began to ask many questions my friends were unable to answer. So they brought me to a man considered a Bible answer man of sorts. I continued to ask my questions. He answered me by quoting verses of Scripture from the King James Version (KJV) but without explanation.

I had studied Shakespeare and Chaucer in high school, so it wasn’t the archaic language that troubled me—it was my lack of spiritual understanding.

Each time he quoted a Scripture in response to my many questions, I could hear a round of “amen’s” and some cheering, as he refuted my challenging questions.

Intent on my quest for spiritual truth, and exasperated with his pat answers, I finally asked him—“If I could destroy all the books in the world, how would you then tell me how you truly know God?”

He promptly called me the devil and threw me out of the church.

The wrong way

It was another two years of spiritual wandering before I came into a personal relationship with Jesus, my Lord. I continued reading the Bible and praying, but didn’t give up the other activities and experiences that were counterproductive to my spiritual growth.

My frustration deepened and became desperation.

One morning, leaving the small trailer I lived in with my girlfriend, I went on a search for God. I expected some sign in the sky or a burning bush experience, as Moses had before he led Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1-6).

I saw no sign, no burning bush, and didn’t hear any voices.

Discouraged, I returned to the trailer and began reading my Bible. I came to some verses that challenged me—

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

In my heart, I took up the challenge of going on the narrow and hard way. I had considered many different philosophies and religions in search of a harmonious belief everyone could hold.

This text showed me I was on the wrong path that led to destruction. I saw the last part of the verse as a challenge to pursue, so I committed my life to God.

A changed life

My life changed little by little as God showed me a new way of living.

I began to give up old habits of my previous lifestyle and developed new ones. On the day of my wedding, I experienced a rush of new life and freedom.

I had closed the door on my old life as a new door opened.

My wife and I attended the same church I’d been thrown out of but I had a much different attitude and view of God. I began serving the Lord[iv] in various ways and became part of the church staff. My wife and I became full-time volunteers who oversaw the childcare ministry at the time our first son was born.

A better way

Years later, I’ve often wondered if the time between my earnest questioning and eventual commitment of my life to Jesus could have been shorter—perhaps two years shorter!

What I needed that night and what millions—even billions—still need is a simple, clear, and complete explanation of the gospel.

For many people, Jesus is only a historical figure whose life is shrouded in mystery.

Every Christian believer should be able to share the truth of the gospel with or without a Bible in hand, and without using Christian terminology and jargon.

Is this possible?

Absolutely!


[i] The Barna Group has done a lot of research, especially in the area of young people. Here are a couple reports that reveal this trend of church dropout among youth/young adults— Barna article. There was also a significant study done by sociologist Christian Smith, which he published in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers (published in 2005), coining the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Here is a link to an article about MTD

[ii] The Jesus Movement was a Christian counterculture movement starting in the late sixties and growing to prominence in the early seventies. Young people often termed Jesus freaks, and Christian rock music characterized this non-organized movement. [http://www.one-way.org/jesusmovement/| http://conservapedia.com/Jesus_Movement]

[iii] “Accepting Christ,” describes a person making a decision to follow Jesus as their Lord and Savior. It is also called “making a decision for Christ.” An invitation (opportunity) is given to make this decision during an “altar call”—an invitation to come forward or signal an intention to “accept Christ” with a raised hand, then being led in a simple (often rote) prayer.

[iv] “Serving the Lord” became a popular phrase describing volunteerism in the church, but can also include paid staff positions. The idea being it’s more than a job, it’s an opportunity to “serve the Lord.”

This is another excerpt from my book— The Mystery of the Gospel