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Is Your Church Dying?

crumbling churchPlease forgive me for the morbid and depressing title and content. I don’t think posts such as these encourage many of you. I guess the impetus for writing such an article is the work I am doing to finish my next book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. I have dealt a lot with the death of churches in my research and writing for that book.

The Research

Before I go further, let me define a dying church. A dying church is a congregation that will close its doors within 20 years if it continues its current trajectory. “Trajectory” includes many variables such as attendance, financial giving, demographic trends, and age of members.
Why would I include such a long period of 20 years in the definition? Simply put, churches hang on to life tenaciously. The members, despite how few remain, are highly reticent to close the doors of the church.
According to my estimates, about one in four American churches, or around 100,000 churches, fit the definition of a dying church. My estimates seem to have been confirmed with a recent study by LifeWay Research. The research team conducted telephone interviews with 1,007 Protestant pastors.* One of the response statements the team asked the pastors was: “I am concerned that the church where I am serving is dying.” Here are the responses:

  • Strongly agree: 7%
  • Somewhat agree: 15%
  • Somewhat disagree: 19%
  • Strongly disagree: 58%

So 22% of the pastors either strongly or somewhat agree that their churches are dying. That number is close to my own estimates of 25 percent. I would further postulate that another 25 percent of churches are struggling, and could move to the “dying” category easily.

The Questions

If one-fourth of churches are dying, and if another one-fourth of the churches are struggling, how can we discern signs of these problems before it’s too late? May I suggest five questions you can ask?

  1. Has worship attendance declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
  2. Has budget giving declined in at least seven of the past ten years?
  3. Does my church look more like the community or less like the community than ten years ago?
  4.  Are church conflicts significantly more frequent today than past years?
  5.  Is your church’s budget decreasing its focus on reaching and ministering to others beyond the church?

Of course, these questions are not infallible indicators. They should, however, give a good indication if your church is directionally headed toward dying or not.

The Solution

The good news is that a number of churches, tens of thousand, are moving from death or decline to growth and life. I would love to hear from people in those churches.
What will it take to reverse the trends in dying churches? What has your church done to reverse that trend, or is your church firmly set to close its doors within the next several years?
*LifeWay Research conducted telephone interviews with 1,007 Protestant pastors from September 4, 2013 to September 9, 2013. The calling list was a stratified random sample drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor or minister. Responses were weighted to reflect the geographic distribution and denominational groups of Protestant churches. The completed sample provides a 95% confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +/- 3.1%

Used with Permission: This article was originally published at ThomRainer.com on October 30, 2013. Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and seven grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer.

 

Saving Sacred Spaces with a Church Trust

IMG_0040Land and buildings owned by churches are valuable assets. They were intended for specific, God honoring, purposes. They were purchased with sacrificial gifts of God’s people. Today, the value of these assets totals in the hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of dollars.

So what happens to these valuable assets as churches journey through the various stages of their life cycle? If a church reaches a plateau or finds its attendance and finances declining, is there a safeguard in place to protect the church and its property from becoming the target of (1) a “hostile takeover” by an unacceptable “religious” group or unscrupulous business developer; or (2) an internal “coup” by a leader or small group of leaders who are not committed to the principles of the Restoration Movement?

Saving Sacred Spaces – is a program designed specifically to provide such a safety net for churchs. By placing church property in trust, church leaders can assure their congregation of a safe meeting place while they work on strategies and opportunities for returning to health. They can also assure the congregation that if a graceful ending of the church’s life cycle becomes reality those valuable assets will be distributed (per their instructions) for growing and dynamic ministries. A Sacred Space will be saved and Christ’s Kingdom will continue to be honored. 

How External Takeovers and Internal Coups Occur

  • A “multitude” of Independent Churches are looking for a place to call home.
  • At-risk churches provide a tempting environment for a “takeover” or a “coup.”
    • At-risk churches possess 3 very important factors that lead to a hostile takeover
      • High value and debt free
      • Attendance in decline
      • Churches that are autonomous
    • The hidden agenda behind an external takeover
      • Outside group will filter into the church little by little
      • They become voting members and leaders
      • They will ultimately call for a congregational meeting and a vote
    • The dynamics of an internal coup
      • Attendance declines and those who remain become tired and weary
      • Finances are a continual challenge
      • Long-term leaders gone, new leaders not connected to original vision for church
      • New leaders see “merger” or “union” with non-Restoration Movement group as an easy solution

 Is Your Church a Target?

  • Attendance that decreases to less than 100 people per Lord’s day
  • Less than 35 active families involved in the church
  • A congregation where there are less than seven dedicated, knowledgeable men who could assume the role of elder
  • Property that is valuable, but with a loan-to-value ratio of less than 50 percent

Protecting the Church

  • Sharpen Your Bylaws
    • Bylaws should contain 4 articles to identify:
      • Church
      • Membership
      • Requirements for membership
      • Dissolution procedures
    • WARNING – Bylaws can be easily amended – they do not provide as complete of protection as a Church Trust!

 Ultimate Protection and Benefit 

  • Ultimate Protection
    • Place church in trust with a non-profit ministry like Kairos Legacy Partners as trustee to hold title to property
  •  Ultimate Benefit
    • Grants local congregation full authority to conduct services and all other (non-real estate) business of the church as they always have, without fear of an internal Coup or external Takeover.
  • Assures church leaders and members that church assets will be distributed according to their instructions, should church eventually close 

Here’s just one example of how a Kingdom minded church looked beyond its own decline and found a way to be a Blessing to many… by placing its property in a Church Trust.

 First Christian Church of Santa Ana, CA

First Christian Church of Santa Ana was the mega church of its day and the community of Santa Ana the place to live in Orange County.  During the 70’s though, this community began to experience a drastic change in cultural demographics as a large contingent of Hispanics began moving into the area.  This similar picture was being seen in many of the once affluent communities throughout Orange County and as a result those who felt uncomfortable with this change, moved on to establish suburban communities to the south, while those who decided to remain took more drastic actions.

Right, wrong or indifferent, change affects us all in various ways but for FCC of Santa Ana they felt the need to protect their property from the changing demographics rather than embrace it, and the resulting mindset was to close their doors to what was happening around them in an effort to preserve what they had worked so hard to build.  As time passed, the attrition rate began to rise as people continued their exodus by leaving or dying, but no one coming in to replace them.

This, one time thriving mega church with 55,000sq.ft.of usable facility, was in dire straights and on their way to closing their doors when in August of 1997 the leadership decided to place their facility in trust to CDF.  During the next two years the church continued to decline in membership and spiral further into financial insecurity.

In September of 1999, First Christian Church of Santa Ana and CDF formulated a plan to put this church back into operation as a community church that would once more reach the people in its neighborhood.  The decision was made to ask a nationally known Hispanic minister to come to Santa Ana with his church and build a ministry that would not only meet the need of the neighboring community, but would also bring life back into the sparsely populated sanctuary and empty classrooms throughout the property.

CDF placed the church under direct management of the Director of Trust Properties to both manage the operations of the building and the relationship between the new church being started and the 4 small groups who already existed on the property.

Almost from the beginning of this process, Santa Ana College, which was located directly across the street, was calling the CDF office wanting to buy the property for “cash” as the property was in the path of their expansion plans for the college. Also from the beginning, CDF’s response was absolutely NOT; with a further indication that we would do whatever it takes to reestablish this ministry for the community.  We committed the next 3 years to fulfilling that promise as CDF, the new Hispanic ministry, and the existing groups at FCC worked side by side to rebuild the Santa Ana church.

Peter Drucker said this about plans, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”   Or it can be said this way, “The best made plans are only as good as the unity that supports it.”  The plan to succeed was set into motion but the struggle to maintain unity to the vision prevented the victory.

After 3 years of internal turmoil and failed attempts to fill the empty building throughout the week, the original members of FCC expressed their disappointment by asking CDF to intervene and come up with a final solution to this problem.

After much prayer and discussion, CDF proposed this plan to the leadership of the church; due to Santa Ana College’s insistence to buy the property and the increasing amount of cash they were willing to spend, 5.4 million, why not sell the property and use the proceeds of the sale to establish a fund whereby the fund would stay in place year after year and the interest off that amount would be used to plant new churches each year, every year until Jesus returns!  That way the legacy of the church could be passed on from church to church from generation to generation.  To that proposition the church said, “That’s a no brainer!”

The plans were made to sell the building; ample time was given for existing ministries to decide where they wanted to go or whether they even wanted to stay in operation.  There was a lot of sensitivity and care given to the preparations for demolishing this familiar icon of Santa Ana; stained glass windows were carefully removed and donated to the Santa Ana Historical Society, as was a time capsule that was placed in the cornerstone of the Sanctuary in 1955 which possessed historical artifacts about the church of that day.  No stone was left unturned in providing a transition that was both dignified and respectful of the people of FCC of Santa Ana and the accomplishments that they had provided over the years and now would continue to provide into the future.

Today, more than 350 new churches would not exist were it not for the Church Planting Fund which was established by the proceeds of First Christian Church of Santa Ana, and has been added to over the years by Church Trust designations, Legacy Church gifts and direct contributions from individuals and organizations:

When is a Trust Terminated?

  • When the congregation determines that it no longer wants to continue as a congregation
  • In the unilateral opinion of the Trustee, the church is no longer serving as a Christian church under the New Testament restoration position tradition
  • When the property is liquidated
  • When the assets of property and of congregation are distributed to named beneficiaries in the trust document
    • Congregation at the time of setting up trust determines what charitable beneficiaries are to be recipients of final distribution of assets.

Bottom Line

The congregation has to have faith in the Trustee

Kairos Legacy Partners is a charitable organization which is dedicated to the principles of New Testament Christianity, and has a loyal determination to see that the church continues in its originally established position and purpose.

Protecting the Future with a Church Trust

Protecting assetsIt seemed like an innocent proposal. A struggling church was in need of a preacher and a young, energetic man who had a little preaching experience had started attending the church. He offered to preach, free of charge, and the church gladly accepted his offer.

Within just a few weeks the church started to grow — for the first time in years. There was a certain excitement, but at the same time there was a little trepidation amongst the long-time members of the church. They loved the fact that the church was growing, but something was amiss. The doctrine coming from the pulpit had a very different tone, something that was very dissimilar to the church’s historic roots.

The new people who had come were quickly gaining a strong leadership footing, placing their membership and securing a clear-cut voice for a “new direction” for the church. The long-time members of the church were feeling marginalized as they saw their church begin to turn a direction that made them uncomfortable and sad. Before they knew it a new leadership group had been voted into office and the long-time members had no voice.

Little did those long-time members know that they were the victims of a hostile church take-over. Those words almost seem oxymoronic. How could a group of Christians walk into an existing church and in a matter of just a few months simply take a building away from those who had invested their time, energy and money over a period of years? Unfortunately, for independent, autonomous churches it’s quite easy.

The young, energetic preacher had planned in advance to bring in these “new members” before he preached his first sermon. Over a period of time, those people, with whom he had already been working, placed their membership in the church, called for a congregational meeting and outvoted the existing leadership in order to take control of the property. That seems incomprehensible in a Christian environment, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not an unusual occurrence.

The good news in this case is that prior to the young preacher’s arrival the church in question had placed their property in a trust, indicating that they wanted the resources they had worked so hard to obtain for the work of Christ to be used the way they intended from the start. The new leadership group was shocked to discover that the property was actually owned by a trust and the terms of the trust indicated that their theological bent and leadership direction was out of line with the church’s historic roots.

The trustee of the trust, an independent not-for-profit organization selected by the original group, moved to fulfill the terms of the trust in order to carry out the original group’s long-term plan. The new group filed a lawsuit which wound its way through the courts and the trust was determined to be valid after thirteen years of legal maneuvering and a visit to the California Supreme Court.

At that point, the “new” group, which had been using the building rent-free for those thirteen years issued ‘anonymous’ death threats against the leaders of the not-for-profit trustee of the property in a last-ditch effort to retain control. Fortunately, those were idle threats and an eviction was ultimately carried out.

The happy ending to the story is that the property was made available to another church that shared the theological roots of the original group. That church traded their old, decrepit building for this newer, more functional building at no cost. The trustee sold the older building and used the proceeds to financially bless the ministries that had been designated as beneficiaries by the original group.

While it may be easy for a religious group to rationalize that a take-over of an existing church facility is mere kingdom redistribution, it’s actually a matter of stealing the blood, sweat and tears of Christians who, over a long period of time, built a ministry. Those people had hopes and dreams for how their resources would be used. To see those resources taken away and “redistributed” to entities with whom they would be opposed is a sad end to what was once a vital ministry.

Placing a church property in trust is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Trust in the trustee is critical. Will that trustee commit to carrying out the wishes of the group placing the property in trust? Does the trustee have the financial resources to care for the property if there is a period of time where the property has to be managed? Most importantly, as an organization, do they have the heart of Christ at their very core, sharing the convictions of the local church?

The story above began in 1982. Most of the members of the original group have passed from this life and have gone to their heavenly reward. But their work on this earth carries on. Thirty years have gone by, but a church building that was nearly stolen away in an unscrupulous manner is still being used to carry out the work of Christ by a dynamic, faithful church which shares the passions of that original group. Along the way ministries that had been supported by the original group received a financial blessing. Not all stories have a happy ending. Thankfully, this one does.

Article By Brad Dupray, Church Development Fund.

 

Does Your Church Need Resurrection or Revitalization?

061814.n.wct.church3All of us know that 80% of the churches in the U.S. are either in decline or on a plateau, with the congregation getting older each year. This trend has been going on since the mid 1960’s in every denomination with nothing in sight to suggest it will change. At this pace traditional Christianity is on course to become a minor spiritual player in the West within the next two or three decades.

At the same time every denomination I know has spent tons of money on trying to revitalize the church. But that is part of the problem – you can’t revitalize a corpse. You have to resurrect it!
My twenty-four years as a consultant have taught me there are two kinds of declining and/or stalled churches- “Spiritually dead” or “Not-Yet-Dead but Not-Yet Alive”- with the vast majority of the 80% of declining or stalled churches being in the “Spiritually dead” category.

That is why I wrote the book, A Second Resurrection. If your church isn’t growing, you probably ought to get a copy and see which category your church fits into because the way transformation takes place is different for both categories. What I’ve also learned is that these categories have nothing to do with the size of a church. Let me share two examples. I’ll start by describing the “spiritually dead” church.

Several years ago I consulted with a 5,000 member congregation that was spiritually dead. It had:

  • A two million dollar budget, 80% of which was spent on the congregation, 800 in worship
  • Worship that had declined for more than 20 years but membership was still growing
  • Not one adult baptism in more than ten years.

The church had leaders who were mildly concerned about the decline of the church but not the fact that it wasn’t fulfilling the Great Commission. They felt secure in the fact that they had 5,000 members even though they literally couldn’t find two-thirds of them.

Now let’s look at a “Not Yet Dead but Not-Yet alive church. I had the privilege several years ago of working with a small church of 200 members. It had:

  • A $90,000 budget, 85% of which was spent on the congregation.
  • 140 in worship.
  • Worship that had been stalled out for decades. The sanctuary was over a hundred years old
    with outdoor plumbing.
  • Not one adult baptism in twenty years.

Leaders began to worry about the future and dreamed of better things. Over the next few years the church became multi-site and now runs well over a thousand in worship.

80% of Church Consultations fail . One of the reasons most church consultations fail is because the leaders and or the consultant underestimates the seriousness of the condition. They may feel something is wrong, but it’s really not fatal. So they try to revitalize the church instead of resurrecting it. Failure to accurately assess the reality is usually fatal because the two different realities require two different approaches to transformation.

How to determine the difference? One of the reasons I wrote the book, A Second Resurrection, was to give leaders a way to determine the difference. Let me share a few “reality testers” with you. Here are some of the usual responses to reality in the Spiritually Dead church.

  • When faced with a decision our leaders always ask “can we pay for it rather than will it
    introduce more people to Jesus Christ?”
  • Our leaders care more for the survival of their church than the fulfillment of the Great
    Commission.
  • Our leaders get more satisfaction over a balanced budget than the baptism of one person.
  • If our denomination wanted to plant a church down the street from our church, we would feel threatened and try to stop it rather than rejoice and ask how to help.
  • Our leaders think it’s the duty of the pastor to visit everyone in the hospital.
  • This is my church and don’t you try to change it or move it!
  • Our people seldom consider the lost when designing a program.
  • If we add a second worship service we won’t know everyone anymore.
  • Shouldn’t we take better care of who we’ve got instead of going after new people?
  • We want more young people as long as they act like old people.

Now let’s contrast those reality testers to the Not-Yet-Dead but Not-Yet-Alive church.

  • When faced with a decision our leaders usually ask if it will grow the church rather than fulfill the Great Commission.
  • Our leaders know the church needs to grow and change as long as it doesn’t affect them.
  • Our leaders feel good but not ecstatic when a person is baptized.
  • If our denomination wanted to plant a church down the street from our church, we would feel threatened but would not try to stop it.
  • We know the pastor has a lot to do and we think we should help out by doing some of the
    hospital visitation.
  • We know we need to reach out but they are so different than we are.We still think of the
    church as a place.
  • We know we need this new worship service but we do want to stay connected.

As you can see from the responses, neither type of church is on fire for the Great Commission but one is spiritually dead and the other not-yet-dead but not-yet-alive. How Does Church Transformation Differ in Both Realities? Spiritually dead churches must be resurrected and require that:

  • Everything must be new – programs, leaders, worship, budget, ministries, everything.
  • A radical break from the past. As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the
    same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
  • No tinkering is allowed in any area of the church.
  • The pastor must become the turnaround.
  • Most, if not all, structure should be eliminated immediately.
  • Spend as much money as it takes over a two year period to increase the number of first time visitors even if you have to gut the budget and postpone mortgage payments and let some staff go.
  • You show the controllers the door.

Not-Yet-Dead churches must be revived. To accomplish this you:

  • Work with the dreamers and ignore the whiners.
  • Change things incrementally and grandfather old ways into the new ways.
  • Drop structure as soon as t becomes possible.
  • Evaluate present staff to see if they are the problem.
  • Spend as much money on increasing the first time guests as you can redirect in the budget.
  • Gradually remove the controllers from office.

Keep in mind that church transformation is a combination of doing what is strategically necessary in a timely fashion as well as relying on the miracle of divine intervention. When transformation happens it is because Christians partner with God in becoming faithful to the Great Commission. You can do everything right and the transformation fail because the  leaders didn’t invite God into the process. So bring your prayer life up to date, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Article written by Bill Easum. Used with permission.

 

The Legacy Church Model

 

gift-money_000013711554“If you died today, do you know where you would go?”

Ministers and evangelists have asked that question at revivals and crusades for decades, if not centuries, but has anyone ever asked that question of your church? Have you, as a church leader, ever wondered what will happen to your church when it “dies?”

According to Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond, co-authors of Legacy Churches (ChurchSmart Resources, 2009), roughly 1 percent of all churches in America close their doors every year. While that means there is a 99 percent chance your church will not be one of the 3,000 or more American churches to close in the next 12 months, the reality is that, someday, your church will die.

Of course, though Scripture calls the church the body of Christ, your congregation is not a person with an eternal soul. In a legal sense, your church is a not-for-profit corporation with assets to dispose of upon dissolution. Millions of dollars’ worth of assets, in many cases.

Has it even occurred to your congregation’s leadership that your church will die?

Gray and Dumond go as far as to say that “it’s really not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when'” your church will close.” And, when it does, someone or something will receive the assets the church has accumulated over its years of ministry.

Consider the cost of your church building alone. If your church were to build a facility for $1 million (an unusually inexpensive price in many American markets), the interest payments on a 30-year loan could easily bring your total cost to $2 million or more.

Figure in real estate appreciation and inflation, and, in 40 or 50 years, the value of a $1 million church building becomes almost unimaginable.

That same “compounding value” is true of older churches, as well; in many cases, longstanding congregations have no idea of the true value of their property alone.

What is a faithful but dwindling church to do with those resources? How would the parishioners who financially supported the work of the congregation in the past want those resources to be used today? What were they giving for?

Failing to Plan

Americans and Their Churches According to a 2005 survey by FindLaw.com, the majority of Americans – 55 percent – don’t have an estate plan like a will or a living trust to specify the handling of their assets after they die.

David Pace, president of Kairos Legacy Partners, says that, among churches, that number is quite probably much higher than 55 percent.

He says, “Most of the churches I encounter in my work have no idea what to do when it’s time to close their doors.”

So, what is an appropriate “estate plan” for a dying church?

Proverbs 13:22 says, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” Is there any reason to believe that these words wouldn’t apply to churches? (“A good church leaves an inheritance to its children’s children…”) Indeed, there are multiple “inheritance” metaphors throughout the New Testament, which indicates that this is an important concept to God.

Charitable Planned Giving – A Model for Churches?

In addition to leaving an inheritance for their children (and their children’s children), a growing number of Americans are choosing to leave “estate gifts” to their favorite charitable causes, including churches and non-profit ministries.

Rebecca Locke, senior director of gift planning for the American Red Cross, says, “The Red Cross has millions of generous supporters who give as volunteers, financial donors, blood donors, staff, and retirees. Many of those donors want to leave Red Cross in their estate plans.”

Today, the American Red Cross receives 10 to 15 percent of its annual gifts in the form of estate or planned gifts, yet it has never encountered an organization that has planned to leave a gift to the Red Cross in the event of its own corporate dissolution.

While most church bylaws allow for the dissolution of assets, those documents are rarely reviewed by church leaders, seldom updated, and easily changed.

Jim Ohnemus, vice president of loan operations for Church Development Fund, says, “We regularly see church bylaws that name now-defunct ministries in their bylaws. Not that it matters, since, in many cases, a simple vote by the remaining members of a dying church can change those bylaws.”

New Church Planting – Unused Facilities and Unmet Needs

Clearly, there are many charitable organizations and ministries worthy of receiving assets from a dying church – a “legacy gift,” as Pace calls it. But, Gray and Dumond suggest that the most logical use of a dying church’s assets is to fund the launch of a new church.

Pace says, “Our challenge is to create a movement of Legacy Churches that will generate the resources necessary to fund strong, healthy new churches and effective mission endeavors.”

Some congregations, like Central Christian Church in Tampa, Florida, have chosen to give their building and their property directly to a new church. Many others have allowed their facilities to be liquidated in order to provide cash gifts to new churches.

Author Peter Wagner famously called new church planting “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven,” but it is also one of the most expensive forms of ministry in America – with new churches in major metropolitan areas often incurring start-up costs of $250,000 or more.

But the 3,000 or more churches that will close this year in the United States alone could easily represent more than $3 billion in assets.

Imagine if every church that closed this year bequeathed its assets to a new church, essentially stopping the decline in the number of American churches. Now imagine that every church that closed over the last 2,000 years had done the same – it would be as though every church that ever existed was still actively ministering!

In his work, David Pace assists with the liquidation and donation of assets from “legacy churches” on a regular basis – whether those funds are given directly to a new church, a church-planting organization, or other Christian ministry.

In the foreword to the Legacy Churches Workbook (ChurchSmart Resources, 2011), he writes, “No one wants to see their church close its doors and die. But sometimes that local congregation has completed its life cycle and Christ’s Kingdom work will be best advanced by the treasure of Legacy that church can leave behind.”

Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson, spurred discussion among Christian leaders in 2004 when their book, The Externally Focused Church, asked, “If your church vanished, would your community weep? Would anyone notice?”

By adopting the legacy church model, someday your church might not disappear, but recycle itself. Then future generations could paraphrase General Douglas MacArthur, saying, “Old churches never die…they’re reborn as new churches.”

By – Justin Horey, Church Development Fund, www.cdfonline.org

Local Churches Have a Shelf-Life

the church dublin irelandWhat was once a downtown church building is now a unique restaurant. The pews were removed and replaced with tables and booths. The choir loft has been refurbished into a bar. The former fellowship hall is now the kitchen where cooks prepare meals. There is no longer a cross atop the building; instead a sign outside invites customers to come in for fine dining.

The distinctive restaurant serves as a reminder that local churches come and go. Jesus promised that the gates of Hades would not be able to overcome his church. But that promise to the universal church does not necessarily apply to individual congregations. Local churches have a shelf life. Sadly, few retain a vibrant ministry for more than a century.

Warnings to Heed

That’s one of the warnings we should heed from Jesus’ messages to the seven churches in the book of Revelation. The churches addressed in chapters two and three all had effective ministries at one time. Each received commendation from the Lord concerning their accomplishments. But there were also dire warnings.

To the church at Ephesus: “If you do not repent I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place” (2:5).

To the church at Pergamum: “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (v.16).

To the church at Sardis: “You have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die” (3:1, 2).

To the church at Laodicea: “So, because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold-I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (v.16).

God judges churches as well as individuals. When local congregations drift into apostasy or apathy, the Holy Spirit departs and the church dies. Like Samson, who wasn’t even aware the Spirit of God had left him, some churches are operating in their own power and don’t know it. The name “Ichabod” (I Samuel 4:21) could be painted over the entrance because the glory of God has departed and people are just going through the motions.

The history of most churches can be traced through the swing of a bell curve; it is birthed out of a need, progresses upward through vision, commitment, enthusiasm, growth, and reputation, and peaks at pride of achievement. Then the church slowly declines through tradition, dwindling attendance , indifference, bureaucracy, cynicism, and eventually death.

Steps to Take

In his book, Breakout Churches (Zondervan 2010), Thom Rainer points out that it’s possible to rejuvenate a dying church-but it’s very rare and extremely difficult. It almost always requires a humble defining of reality, a painful shock to the system, and a unified commitment to renewal.
That’s why Jesus encouraged churches to take immediate measures to restore their former effectiveness: “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” “Be faithful even to the point of death.” “Hold on to what you have until I come. Be earnest and repent.” “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.”

It’s been said, “Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future.”

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

Copyright 2010 by Bob Russell. Reprinted with permission.

 

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