The last thing we talk about – autopsy of a church

Those of us that are involved in church planting and pastoral ministry love to learn from others.  We are excited to hear about fruitful ministries, stories of churches planted, people setting off into pastoral ministry and conversions and baptisms.

However, just like young people don’t like to talk about death, so we often steer clear from talking about church death. Yet, for every new church planted or existing church revitalised, somewhere this week, a church will close its doors for the last time.

We don’t like to talk about failure. It scares and shames us. We prefer to talk about success. This is partly due to idolatry, I want to be a successful planter, missionary, pastor. It also arises out of a genuine concern to see the Gospel going out.

Yet death is something we need to talk about. You see, there is a reason why a church becomes unhealthy and dies.  There’s a reason why there are places where a gospel witness no longer exists and there are reasons why once thriving  Gospel witnesses have gone into decline. We need to look long and hard into that dark place where we don’t want to go, exactly because we don’t want to go there.

Sadly, over the years I’ve seen my fair share of dead and dying churches. Recently we visited the place where my dad was a lay pastor when I was little. The building has been converted into a row of quaint cottages.  It is at the heart of a suburban community.  I’ve also worshipped with and preached with churches where they are still going but there are few life signs still present.

I’m encouraged that the FIEC included this talk at their 2014 leaders conference where Neil Patterson waked the seminar through the churches in Revelation.

I also want to jot a few reflections here.

  1. Sometimes a church dies because its time is up.  A church may once have been at the heart of a thriving community but now the population have moved away and re-settled elsewhere.
  2. Sometimes a church is the victim of the behaviour of other churches -the large church with its own agenda that pushes into an area without care or concern for Gospel partnership. They use an attractional model and draw crowds of Christians in from a wider surrounding area.  Now I know that there is the argument that people leave for a reason and that they may have left anyway, so the dying church should look at itself (which we will do shortly) however, I don’t think we should downplay the negative outside effect. It may be that a church has been going through a tough patch, is fragile or is in its very early stages and is kicked whilst it is down or stopped in its tracks before it can even take off.  Without external behaviour, it may have stood a chance and survived.
  3. There is often a loss of vision/mission. A church forgets that it exists to make disciples. It becomes absorbed in internal politics, maintenance, the social aspects of community life.
  4. A church that is no longer listening to and obeying God’s Word will die. Indeed, a church may appear externally healthy with lots of people attending and lots of activities but actually be dead. That is probably the most dangerous situation to be in.
  5. A church may lose its specific vision/mission for a particular community. I remember one church where the members all drove in from between 20-50 minutes away. The only reason they attended was because they grew up there. It was the past that kept them together but their present and future was somewhere else.

This is by no means exhaustive but is a starting point.  I’m sure others have things to add. Drop us a note with your thoughts. You may also find some of Thom Rainer’s articles helpful