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Why Churches Die

Just as there are many ways in which churches come into being, they can also die for different reasons. Here are the tales of two churches which died.

Case Study One

An older gentleman whom my father led to the Lord many years ago greeted me at a missions conference. “Have you heard about Rehmat?” he asked. Rehmat being the son of a village elder, now deceased. As I hadn’t heard any news about the village, let alone Rehmat, for a long time I was all ears.

“Rehmat left the Lord and converted.”

“That’s sad,” I murmured.

“No one visits the village any more,” the gent continued. “The believers don’t meet for worship and the roof of the church building has fallen in.”

To underscore just how tragic the situation is, the village in question is one in which my parents invested a huge amount of time and personal effort, not to mention money. My father traveled there countless times to teach and preach. He also arranged for many from the village to attend an evangelistic convention in another city. One memorable day he baptized 19 of them into Christ. In time the church in that village numbered around 60 to 80 people. He helped arrange the financing for their church building and paid for the legal defense when local Muslims tried to block construction.

Dad not only taught the villagers about Christ, he arranged for medical care for their sick – often paying the doctors and buying medicine out of his own pocket. He also tried to supplement their income by buying looms and hiring a master weaver to teach them how to tie carpets.

While looking after their physical welfare, Dad did not leave the people spiritually destitute. As well as continuing personal visits as he had opportunity, he paid a preacher a full year to go live in the village and minister there.

Though not actively involved in ministry at the time myself, I witnessed all this first hand. I accompanied my father on several of his trips to the place. I had a small role in the carpet project and a major one in another attempt to set someone up in business. With all that history no wonder hearing about the state of the church saddened me.

“The seed you planted is still there,” the gent told me. “You really ought to appoint someone to minister there.” He mentioned a name. Though he didn’t state it explicitly, the implication was I should hire the man he named to preach at the village church.

“Wouldn’t it be better,” I suggested, “if the local churches sent someone?”

My comment bounced right off him. “You really need to send someone.”

As gracefully as I could I steered the conversation in another direction and soon took my leave. What I wanted to say, but didn’t, is that the gentleman’s attitude exemplified one of the major reasons the church in the village has failed – instead of taking responsibility for, and ownership of, their own spiritual health, everyone expects an outsider to do everything for them.

It so happens that the gentleman’s wife is from that village – she was one of the first converts. His own son is an ordained preacher. The son heads up a ministry which receives generous funding from the States to, among other things, establish churches. If the gentleman is really so concerned about the state of affairs in the village church, then why doesn’t he do something about helping his own in-laws regain their spiritual footing? Why hasn’t he asked his own son to do something about it? For that matter, if he’s convinced that the person he mentioned could and should go in there and turn things around, why doesn’t he, himself, contribute toward the necessary support? He’s certainly well-off enough to provide a good deal of the funding. Why must a foreigner take up the burden?

Here’s the other thing which struck me. Granted, I do not know the circumstances. I certainly cannot see into peoples’ hearts. It is not mine to judge. Far be it from me to snuff out a “smoldering wick.” Yet, I have to ask the question: If the people in the village have so little spiritual desire that they have given up meeting together; if they don’t have enough concern to prevent their own church building from going to wrack and ruin (after all, they’ve managed to maintain their own houses), then why should I be concerned? As far as I am aware, in all the years since my father labored among them, they’ve never reached out to their sister churches for greater fellowship. They haven’t asked for spiritual help. They haven’t requested others to come to the village to teach and guide them.

When all is said and done, for a church to live the people themselves have to show some interest and make an effort. A relationship with Christ cannot be force-fed. You can keep a body on spiritual life-support for only so long. If the people don’t care, the church will die no matter what you do or how much effort you expend on it.

Autopsy report: Cause of death – Apathy

Case Study Two

The congregation my wife and I helped start is no more. We began it with high hopes. It is my observation that current church culture and practice owes more to tradition than it does New Testament principle. My conviction is, that as society changes and moves further and further away from the underpinnings of Western civilization, the church as we know it will become less and less effective until it revisits the principles upon which the church was built. Here was a chance to throw off some of the constraints of tradition and get back to those first principles.

I viewed the practices we adopted, such as speaker rotations and participatory services, as the natural application of the principles I see in the New Testament. I did not realize that my fellow leaders viewed our practices merely as pragmatic techniques. Either they did not recognize the principles behind the practices I advocated, or having seen the principles, rejected them. Their mindset was still very much bound up in the traditional church culture from which we came. They were willing to try the practices because they thought they might be effective, but it was not from conviction.

Something my wife and I noticed almost from the start was rapid spiritual growth. We saw it, not only in ourselves and our children, but also in others. Sure, we made mistakes; experience refined some of my ideas; further study revealed additional concepts but I felt that the fruit we saw in the congregation confirmed and validated my convictions about our basic approach.

From my perspective our biggest weak spot was evangelism. I believe Scripture indicates that the assemblies of the church are intended mostly for the benefit of Christians. While those outside of Christ are not forbidden to come and participate in the meetings of the church, the meetings are not geared to them. For the most part, evangelism should take place outside of the assemblies. Unfortunately, people apparently weren’t speaking to their friends and acquaintances about Christ as much as we’d hoped.

Numerical growth was not great or rapid. As time went by my fellow Elders became disillusioned with our direction. They began to resist further implementation of things which I considered a natural outgrowth from the principles I hold dear. Differences in philosophy and our basic approach to Scripture began to appear.

My fellow Elders decided they wanted to abandon our speaker rotation. They wanted to stop our participatory services. One of them went so far as to say that he felt guilty if he was not speaking from the pulpit. They seemed to overlook the fact that teaching and preparing others for works of service is one of the primary responsibilities of church leadership. One of them repeatedly told me that training was the job of the Bible colleges. (However, if that is really what he believed it’s interesting that he never proposed that we send someone to Bible college.) As an illustration of the mindset, they wouldn’t let me teach a class on preparing Communion meditations. They also raked me over the coals for pointing out that our teaching and speaking was quite haphazard and rejected a proposal to, over time, speak and teach through the entire Bible. Yet, they proposed no alternative. One told me that he couldn’t even conceive of having a long-term plan.

Things came to a head when the others decided they wanted to return to the pattern of the churches from which we came and hire the man who said he felt guilty outside the pulpit as the preacher for the congregation. They seemed to think that his rhetoric would somehow fill the building. They would not listen when I tried to reason with them from scriptural precedent. They told me that society has changed from what it was in the Apostolic period and the church must change with the times. They would not listen when I pointed out that reinstating the same practices which failed in the past to produce the kind of church we all hoped for would hardly produce different results now. They wouldn’t listen to my plea that it was a mistake to gut the things which were working to try to fix what was broken, that is, evangelism. (If your car has an engine with a blown head gasket, tearing out the transmission won’t fix it!) They refused to read any of the literature on church organization and polity I tried to show them. My admonition that none of us had the kind of charisma, speaking ability or organizational skills which draw people to the mega-churches fell on deaf ears. When I demonstrated that even from a business point of view their proposal was economically not viable, the response was that by the time the money ran out enough new people would join the church to make up the deficit.

The unkindest cut of all was when they told me they never had agreed with the principles I articulated during our planning sessions before we began the congregation. Would that they had told me then! Even yet, my head spins over why they invited me to join them in the first place if they didn’t agree with the principles I believe in and presented to them.

For the sake of harmony, when it became clear that there was nothing I could do or say to dissuade them from their course of action, I offered to acquiesce. That was not acceptable. I either had to whole-heartedly endorse the new direction or resign.

To make the situation even worse they were not candid with the congregation. A rigged vote by the uninformed membership gave the Elders what they wanted. As they wished I resigned, after which they proceeded to strip me of my ministry roles.

Instead of the membership increasing, attendance went down from what it had been before the change. When rhetoric failed to fill the pews the leadership decided small groups were the answer. They spent several thousand dollars attending seminars and buying training material from a large congregation built upon small groups. It was another case of adopting techniques without understanding or buying into the philosophy or principles behind the techniques. I knew the ‘silver bullet’ wouldn’t work when the man they hired as their preacher did not head up a small group of his own even though he’d publicly proclaimed that small groups were the future of the congregation.

After a year of being benched with nothing to do, my wife and I left for another fellowship where our abilities could be put to use. Since our hearts were so bound up in the congregation we helped start we kept our ears to the ground to see how it fared.

As predicted, the money ran out even before we left. A one-time gift enabled them to keep going for several more months. During those months the congregation was subjected to several sermons about giving and stewardship. Friends told us they felt the emphasis of the leadership changed from spiritual growth to numbers and money. When the church could no longer pay the exorbitant salary he demanded, the man who couldn’t stay out of the pulpit with a clear conscience stopped speaking regularly. Ironically, the congregation was forced to return to a speaker rotation to take up the slack. But the spirit just wasn’t the same.

That wasn’t the only problem. The Elder who led the singing did not make an effort to include or train others. The adult class was monopolized by one of the other Elders. With a couple of exceptions, the Elders gave little or no encouragement to others to use their talents and abilities for the common good. It wasn’t long before their failure to train, mentor and help others develop their abilities caught up with them. They had no one who could help them share the burdens of their responsibilities. We began to hear comments that the Elders were tired. They were getting old and couldn’t keep up the pace too much longer.

To take up the slack they formed a pulpit committee to try and hire a preacher from the outside. How they expected one man to fill all the roles they said they could no longer handle, is beyond me. Even worse, they seemed to have learned nothing from the previous go-around. When someone pointed out that even with the reduced salary and benefit package they were willing to offer, the problem of how to pay the man still remained, the answer was the same: Before the money ran out new members the preacher would bring in would make up the deficit.

As it turned out the congregation couldn’t find anyone to hire for what they were willing to offer. Some wanted me to apply for the position. While I will go wherever I believe the Lord leads, without a heart-felt change on the part of the Elders I felt that my coming back to the congregation in any role would be counterproductive. Even if I applied I couldn’t imagine the leadership even considering me for the position. Not to mention that our views of Scripture and church organization are incompatible. I was also reluctant to expose my wife and myself again to the toxic church politics which had corroded our spirits. As gently as I could I turned down the people who approached me.

More time passed. The Elders grew more discouraged and weary. Eventually, they started talking about resigning and forming a committee from among the members to run the church. At least one of the Elders talked about moving away altogether.

Somewhere along the line the idea of a merger with another congregation came up. The idea was to give the other congregation what was in the bank in exchange for a slot in their eldership. When put to a vote, the congregation decided to dissolve as a distinct identity and join the other congregation.

Throughout all the drama one of the things which frustrated me was that there was a significant portion of the congregation which saw the value of how we did things in the beginning and wanted to go back to it. But no one would step up and take responsibility for making it happen.

In due season the merger took place. But it didn’t last. None of the Elders remained long – all but one moved out of state. Only a few of the members who transferred – three or four at the most – still attend. The rest have scattered to the winds. And so, the congregation which started with so much promise, died.

Though we had not been a part of the congregation for several years at the time of its demise, my wife and I still feel heartsick over it. We’re grateful for the good God accomplished in us and others through the congregation, but we can’t help but sorrow over what might have been.

Autopsy report: Cause of death – Selfish ambition and criminal negligence in the leadership (Ezekiel 34:2-6, John 10:13).

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