In a couple of weeks I will be having my annual physical. The Doctor will check me thoroughly – weight, pulse, breathing, blood pressure, cholesterol, PSA, blood flow, sugar, etc. The Doctor carefully checks me over like a mechanic inspecting an engine. If problems are detected he then suggests ways to address the problem and correct it before it becomes worse. If I ignore his advice it could inevitably bring about my early demise.
There are many people who are carrying diseases in their body they are not aware of or have ignored the warning signs, and the disease is not detected or dealt with until it is too late…and death occurs. The person was slowly dying all along but didn’t realize it. In the same respect, there are churches that are dying but the members are not paying attention to the warning signs, which if not heeded will ultimately spell the death of the church. Is it possible to diagnose if a church is sick or even worse, if it is on its deathbed?
Each local church is to function as the Body of Christ in the community where located. Like our physical bodies, which can become sick and eventually die, the local Body of Believers can become sick and if not attune to the warning signs can and will die. While statistics vary, and thankfully new church plants out number church closings, research from 34 denominations find that approximately 3,700 churches close their doors each year (Lisa Cannon Green, “Study: Thousands of Churches Closing Every Year, but There Is a Silver Lining,” Charisma News, December 9, 2015).
There are many warning signs, many symptoms of a dying church which need to be heeded. The list presented here is not exhaustive, but what follows are twelve signs of a dying church. Any congregation that sees themselves reflected in more than a few of these signs needs to take action before the death certificate is signed and the doors are shut for the final time.
First, there is more talk of the church’s past than of a future vision. Solomon wisely stated, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). Where there are no planned goals, no goals will be reached.
Second, no new leadership is being developed. Often the old guard refuses to develop new leaders for fear of losing their grip of power.
Third, evangelism or outreach is not a priority of the leaders or members. If there are no definite evangelistic plans to reach out to the lost, the congregation will continue to dwindle as members pass away.
Fourth, the congregation is mono-generational. If the members are all of the same generation and close in proximity to the same age, the inevitable is only a matter of time. A church with no youth is headed down a dead end road.
Fifth, all attempts to awake the church from the status-quo is met with resistance. Comfortable is the optimal word in a church seeking to maintain the status-quo and moving out of the church’s comfortable zone is unthinkable.
Sixth, visitors are received with lukewarmness and seen as disturbing the “family.” When a church is perceived by visitors as “clannish” and doesn’t make visitors feel welcome and at home, first-time visitor’s returning will drop to near zero.
Seventh, when you have more funerals than new members. When adding new members cannot keep pace with the members who are passing away, one doesn’t have to be a mathematician to figure the outcome.
Eighth, when the church loses its courage to take a stand against leadership that is clearly leading the church on a self-destructive path. Sadly, there are congregations who realize the entrenched leadership is leading the church down a self-destructive path, but will not take a stand to right the ship because “we don’t want to rock the boat and we have to live in the community with them.”
Ninth, when the members are more concerned about someone dirtying the church than they are about the fact the pews are empty. Sadly, some churches would rather have a spic & span clean church than pews that are occupied. When congregations put having pristine floors and walls over the dirty shoes and fingerprints of people, the day will come when no one will dirty the carpet any longer.
Tenth, when there is no longer a burden for lost souls. While it is good and we should be prayerfully concerned about the physical health of members, when is the last time you heard someone with a deep felt burden ask for prayer for the spiritual healing of a lost soul? A church that has no burden for lost souls will cease to be a lighthouse in the community
Eleventh, reject proposals without giving them any consideration because “we have never done it that way before” or “this is the way we have always done it.” Strategies for growth are rejected even though the “same ol’ way” of doing things is no longer working.
Twelfth, when the church sees the pastor as always the problem and getting a new pastor will “fix the problem.” A dying church thinks a new pastor will have a magic wand to wave that will fix the problem, so they dismiss the pastor they have or make it so hard on him he leaves. They soon discover the next pastor doesn’t have the “fix” either.
The death of any church is a sad occurrence indeed. While there are those who contend the death of some churches can’t be avoided, I am willing to err on the side of optimism and believe the death of any church doesn’t have to be. If the “death signs” are recognized, the warning signs heeded, and the leadership and members are willing to prayerfully put forth the effort to address the issues, the church can be saved from having to permanently close the doors. When there is a return to embracing the divine purpose and mission of the church, there is a commitment to fervent prayer, a passion for the lost, and a return to making the first priority to glorify the Christ of the cross, what was once a dying church can become a healthy, vibrant church where each time the doors are opened all present can have an encounter with the living God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Lord, grant it to be so.