Bottom line is this: The overwhelming majority of declining churches in North America are ineffective simply because they have lost their sense of desperation for Kingdom impact. Oh sure, every evangelical church (I would hope) will say that they want to see people saved, baptized and discipled. You will not find a minister or lay leader in a church that would say, “we really don’t care that the majority of people in our community are lost and will die in that condition.” I truly believe that the overwhelming majority of Christians do care that hundreds, if not thousands of people, that live in their community do not have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I also believe that dedicated church members understand the need to reach out to these people who live in their community and share Christ with them and get them connected with a local church. However, though the theology is right and the intentions are pure, the sad reality is most declining churches have lost their desperation for Kingdom impact in their community.
In the book of Acts, the early church believed that sharing Christ and making disciples was a desperate need and their actions showed it. They lived with a strong belief that the return of Christ was imminent and their mission was to prepare as many souls for that moment as possible. For example, Luke describes the first church in Jerusalem as a group of people who lived in daily desperation for Christ and the mission they had been called to live. He describes the church as “continuing steadfastly” and “continuing daily” in a “deep sense of awe or fear” (Acts 2:42-47). As a result “many wonders and signs were done” and “daily the Lord added to the church those who were being saved.” When churches get desperate enough for Jesus Christ and to see him work, only then will congregations see results. Mark Clifton writes in his book, “Reclaiming Glory: revitalizing Dying Churches” that each year in the Southern Baptist Convention 900 churches disappear and most because they close their doors. If something doesn’t change in the next 10 years we will see unprecedented church closings across our land and many of them in the deep south and many will be SBC churches. That is not anecdotal perceptions. My statement is based on my observation from hundreds of conversations with pastors, associational leaders and evangelical leaders in general.
Declining and dying churches must reach a point of desperation where they make the decision not to be a statistic.
At that point of desperation they slaughter all sacred cows, re-introduce themselves to their community demographics, get outside the stained glass and become the Gospel movement that Jesus Christ is calling them to become.
Declining churches put much effort into planning the church calendar, budget, and weekly services, but give little or no attention to taking the life giving message of the Gospel to the families living in their community. The outreach of these churches ends at their church sign which says, “Welcome.” Churches don’t have to surrender the sacredness of the message in order to embrace the best methodologies and strategies to reach their community.
Churches that refuse to change methods in order to reach souls have lost their sense of desperation.
I will never forget hearing Jim Henry, long time pastor of FBC Orlando, say to my seminary class, “All growing churches have a certain amount of healthy tension.” I didn’t understand that statement for many years, but I have come to believe that he was right. Healthy churches refuse to exist in contentment and predictable patterns simply to keep members happy. Some churches express a desire to reach their community as long as the visitors bring the preferred Bible translation, sing the preferred worship songs, dress in “church clothes” and show up at 11:00AM on Sunday. In other words, come and visit with us as long as you conform to our way of “doing church.” Churches like this have not reached a place of desperation.
My fear is that many churches have reached what I call the “line of desperation”. This line symbolizes a time in the life of the church where major methodological changes must be made in order to enjoy a healthy future. At this point in the church’s life it is literally “put up or shut the doors up.” Tough decisions need to be made that will forever change the function, demographic and literally the DNA of the congregation. Most congregations will not make a courageous decision and will refuse to embrace a desperate methodology that leads to cathartic changes. These churches have chosen to continue in contentment and keeping peace and in so doing they write their own obituaries.
The sad fact is that many churches will die and not because God wants them to die, but because they are just not desperate enough to make the necessary changes that lead them to a new fruitful season.
Hunter Street Baptist Church in Hoover, Alabama is a great example of a church that came to the line of desperation and chose to be desperate in mission rather than die in mediocrity. The church came to the realization that if changes were not made, the church would eventually die. Courageous decisions were made and today the church is a dynamic ministry baptizing hundreds per year. Hunter Street came to a point of desperation and the church chose life rather than a slow death. Unfortunately I know of many churches who have passed the line of desperation and chose to sit in contentment and face their eventual fate.
Is your church at the line of desperation? If so, will your church choose to become desperate for Christ, desperate for God’s mission, desperate for the souls of your community and desperate to see God work? My prayer is that we will see a revitalization of desperation in congregations all over North America. We will not see this movement until the people in the pews become desperate to see God move in their individual lives first and in their church respectively. No outdated method or tradition is worth holding on to, no matter how cherished, if it leads to mediocrity and eventually ministry necrosis.