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Why do churches die?

In a follow up to last week’s column, someone asked me, “Why do churches die?”

This is an excellent (and sensitive) question. Last time I checked, there were 250+ registered churches in Cape May County. Over 250!!! That was shocking to me until I realized that the vast majority of those churches are declining in health and growth. Then, my shock turned to sadness. Why does this happen?

First off, I don’t claim to be an expert, but Revolve is a church that is growing and we are doing so despite the fact that we have not compromised on what the historical confessions of church history consider to be the essentials. As a church attender, seminary graduate, missionary, church planter, and pastor, I think I can highlight a few reasons for why churches are dying.

Here’s a tough question to consider as you read this: is this your church? In the coming weeks we will talk about the flipside of this and look at, “What should define a healthy church?”

So, why are churches dying?

Reason #1: They are too proud to admit that they are sick.

Many churches experienced health at one point in time, and they cling to those glory days as if it should propel them forward for decades. These churches are sick, not healthy, but because they had health, they have convinced themselves that they are fine. The core essentials of health, however are limited or absent from the church. Often, there is no preaching of the cross, just teaching about religion. There is rarely a strong sense of the individuals in the church walking with Jesus on a daily basis through the spiritual disciplines of time in the word, time in prayer, obedience, etc. If there is a sense of community in the church, it is homogenous and there is no diversity (racially, educationally, economically, and so on and so forth). Community is more like a country club than a group of people living for a common cause. Finally, there is normally no gospel witness inside the building or in the surrounding area. Unhealthy churches are inward focused. Most growth comes from people being born, not from people coming to new faith.

Reason #2: They keep waiting for the silver bullet.

Unhealthy, dying churches assume that their problem is their pastor. They think that if they aren’t growing, it must be the pastor’s fault (and perhaps it is), but often the church is just as much and more to blame. Pastors have a short lifespan at a dying church and they turnover faster and faster. It must be the pastor’s fault, right? Well, perhaps the church is a caustic environment, so any pastor who is driven, desiring to see real growth and thinks outside the box will either run away as soon as he realizes the truth, or never take the pastorate in the first place. Which leads us to…

Reason #3: They are too proud to realize that they are the problem, not someone else.

Dying churches wave their finger at the changing culture, the community, the pastor, and other people, saying things like, “What’s wrong with people? They just don’t like church anymore. They need to change!” Dying churches want non-Christians to like the things that they like (which doesn’t make sense because even most Christians don’t like the things that they like). Unhealthy churches blame their previous pastor, their previous leader, their previous bishop, anyone but themselves. Those in charge (either officially on a board or behind the scenes via money and gossip) look at everyone else rather than staring long and hard in the mirror of God’s Word.

Reason #4: They are too proud to change.

A church shouldn’t change on its message, that should always be Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and coming again, but most dying churches refuse to adapt to the world around them. They pine for the “good ‘ol days” and want the church (and the world) to go back to the way it was in the 1980’s… 1950’s… 1200’s… They refuse to acknowledge the reality that the world is changing and is doing so faster than we can keep up.

Reason #5: When they think about how to fix the problem, they miss the point.

TV screens and an acoustic guitar aren’t going to make people come to your church. People want the Scriptures proclaimed (not religion), authentic community (not plastic, fake garbage), and a group of people who actually live out the faith that they claim to believe (not hypocrisy).

Do you know what’s attractive to the world around you? Health. The only way to find health isn’t in more gimmicks, more tradition, more religion, more capital campaigns, more radio ads, or any other thing that you might think of. Health comes before growth, not the other way around. The only way that a church doesn’t die (or become a herd of walking zombies that is dead but seems to be alive) is if it keeps seeking God, as revealed in his Word.

During the next few weeks, I will discuss what I think should describe a healthy church.