I stood before some 700 church members on a Sunday evening. My task was straightforward. I was to share with them the results of a consultation my team members and I had worked on during the past several weeks.
The presentation should have been easy and uneventful. To the contrary, the time proved to be stressful and contentious. When I pointed out even a small area of concern with suggested remedies, dozens of members raised their hands to tell me how wrong I was, how the evaluations of the consulting team were far off base.
The church in question had been in decline for nearly two decades. Yet, from the perspectives of many of the members, the church was healthy and thriving. From my perspective, the most obvious reality I saw was denial.
Lessons from the Past, Lessons for the Future
Over the past 20 years, one of the richest blessings in my life has been the opportunity to study and consult with thousands of churches. I’ve seen hundreds of healthy churches that have taught me valuable lessons.
Unfortunately, I’ve also seen thousands of churches whose ministries are declining, whose members are discouraged, and whose evangelistic impact is negligible. Recently, I reviewed many of my past consulting and research projects to discern common characteristics of declining and dying churches.
I found what I call “seven sins” that characterize dying churches. These issues are not mutually exclusive; they are often directly related to each other. Rather than being a source of discouragement, I pray that my elucidation of these seven sins will be a tool to help you avoid the pitfalls that other church leaders have experienced.
Sin #1: Doctrine DilutionOne of our consultants sat in a Bible study class of a church that had brought in our team for a long-term consultation relationship. He had been told that the class included some of the church’s strongest leaders. Much to his surprise, the entire Bible study was a debate on whether or not a non-Christian might go to heaven. After much argument, the conclusion was that God would indeed allow such a person into heaven.
When such cardinal truths as the doctrine of exclusivity become issues of doubt, a church is in trouble. There’s little motivation for outreach and evangelism if other paths and other religions are equal to Christianity.
Ironically, in our survey of unchurched persons across America, we found that these non-Christians were much less likely to attend churches with weak doctrinal beliefs than those with strong ones. “Why should I waste my time in a place that does not have much certainty of belief,” Amy, a 29-year-old unchurched person from Arizona, told us. “I can find plenty of uncertainty in the world.”
Sin #2: Loss of Evangelistic PassionIt is no surprise that declining and dying churches have little evangelistic passion. In my January/February ’05 Outreach column, I highlighted one of the major reasons for evangelistic apathy: Many senior pastors either don’t have or have lost their evangelistic passion. Congregations tend to follow the passions and visions of those in key leadership positions, particularly the pastor.
Sin #3: Failure to Be Relevant
Unfortunately, many churches in America are out of touch with the changing trends and values of today’s culture.
Some churches, for certain, abandon many of the cardinal truths of the faith in their quest to be relevant to the community they serve. But even more churches are woefully unaware of the realities, hopes, and pains of those around us. Failure to be true to doctrines of the Christian faith leads to apostasy. Failure to understand the world in which we live and serve leads to irrelevancy.
Sin #4: Few Outwardly-Focused Ministries
In a recent survey of churches across America, we found that nearly 95% of the churches’ ministries were for the members alone. Indeed, many churches had no ministries for those outside the congregation.
Many churches seem to exist only for themselves. While there certainly should be ministry available for church members, often the balance between external and internal ministries is heavily skewed toward internal. When churches seek to care and minister only to their own, it’s a likely sign that decline is in motion and that death may be imminent.
Sin #5: Conflict over Personal Preferences
Some of the more vicious internal battles in congregations today are not fights over defending the great truths of the Christian faith. Instead, members have conflict over their preferred worship style, the way a room is painted or carpeted, and the type of pulpit the preacher uses. Battles like these are sure signs that members are more concerned about their needs than the needs of the hurting and unchurched people who live and work next to them.
Sin #6: The Priority of Comfort
A few years ago, my youngest son, Jess, was a high school senior on the football team. Because he gave so much of himself in the Friday night game, he often slept late on Saturdays. Around noon, he’d trudge down the stairs, turn on the television in the family room, and collapse on the sofa.
One Saturday, I passed him as his extended body contorted on the sofa and noticed that my football player son was watching HGTV. Curious, I asked Jess why he was watching a home and gardening show. His response was classic—“’cause the remote is broken.”
Many churches are in definitive patterns of decline because church members simply will not move beyond their couches of comfort. It’s much easier to do things the way we’ve always done them, rather than to get uncomfortable in the world outside the walls of the church.
Sin #7: Biblical Illiteracy
Only 3% of churches in America have a planned method of instructing their members to learn the Bible in its entirety. While studying the Bible shouldn’t be limited to a church setting, it’s imperative that churches take the lead in these types of endeavors.
When only three of 100 churches even attempt to provide a way for their members to understand Genesis to Revelation, biblical illiteracy is likely to occur. And biblical illiteracy means that our churches may not be obedient to the calls of Scripture because they don’t know what the Bible says.
Lights in the darkness?
Our research shows that many churches in America are sick, declining, and dying. Still, I remain an obnoxious optimist about the American Church. I’ve seen many churches reject the darkness of these seven sins and do something about their decline. They’re truly lights in the darkness.
I recently concluded a one-year consultation with a church that had seen a reversal of almost all the negative trends in its congregation. The pastor summed up the experience well: “We were not lacking in resources or know-how; we were just lacking in obedience. When we made a decision that mediocrity and complacency would not be acceptable, God began to bless us. It is just that simple.”
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.