Get free email updates as I write new articles:

What to Do When Your Church Seems to Be Dying

Temple Baptist Church Sarnia New Roof

No church leader I know wants to see another church close its doors. We need every local church, now more than ever, if we’re going to fulfill the Great Commission as soon as possible. I’m a Baptist who still believes in the perpetuity of biblical, local New Testament churches until Jesus comes again. But each local church in history has tended to have its own life cycle. Some are revived and have a whole new life. Others disband and dissolve. And many churches limp along in mere survival mode for a couple of decades until their stalwart generation is gone and then close their doors.

Here’s a hard truth. Sometimes, churches need to die. Sometimes, churches need a miraculous healing and fresh breath of life. God is certainly in the miracle-working business and is alive and well on His throne, but under His sovereign reign, history proves that miracles aren’t always in order from His perspective.

If you think your church might be dying, here are some possible next moves.

Assess the situation.

And here’s the tough question you must ask to have a meaningful assessment: Will we, by fighting for our survival, consume resources such as money and energy that could be better invested in other ways for the growth of God’s Kingdom? And here’s the kicker. To turn things around, you won’t be able to do what you’ve been doing. Things will have to change radically and painfully, and very few churches survive the transition. You’ll have to let go of the reins and give up control. In other words, you’ll have to do the very thing human beings are most afraid to do for your church to have a chance at new life.

If, after close inspection, deep prayer and fasting, and the counsel of godly leaders your church comes to the conclusion that life must go on and revival must occur, brace yourself. What comes next is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. It’s why Ed Stetzer often says that “it’s easier to birth babies than to raise the dead.”

Know that God wants more than your faithfulness. He wants you to be fruitful as well.

This is the point at which many who are reading these words with a defensive posture will be proclaiming that all is needed for a church to thrive is faithfulness to sound doctrine and the preaching of the gospel. I believe these are foundational. I also know plenty of churches that are, as Vance Havner put it, “straight as a gun barrel doctrinally and just as empty spiritually.”

To be faithful requires our adherence to the Scriptures as God’s Word, to Jesus Christ as Savior and Head of the body, and to the Holy Spirit as our source of power. But fruitfulness also requires wisdom, teamwork, sweat and toil, and a methodology that fulfills the unchanging mission of the church.

Let go of your church as you’ve known it.

Everything has to be on the table. It’s possible, and even highly likely, that your church is being held back by some rather significant factors such as the leader, the building or location, the power structure, the worship style, poor communication and broken systems. Many churches are dying because they’ve hung onto seemingly harmless traditions that actually alienate them from those outside the faith by creating an impassible cultural wall.

Many churches are dying because they’ve handcuffed their spiritual leaders with an inverted structure. The sheep are controlling the shepherd and threaten to vote him out if he doesn’t tow the line. This is epidemic. And also common is the lone ranger leader who has all kinds of freedom and power but is too afraid to share the load of ministry by empowering other leaders.

[bcoxlike]

Get help.

We want new church plants to be under the wing of a “mother” church until they’re on their feet. I think it’s pertinent that churches in “resuscitation” mode do the same. Seek out the help and oversight of a church that is thriving. Obviously you will want to seek the leadership of a church that is like-minded theologically, but it’s also vitally important to be able to recognize and appreciate the value and effectiveness of other methodologies. You need coaches, consultants, and mentors if you’re going to turn the ship around. Call them the triage team, if you will, and listen to their wisdom.

Start over. Completely.

It’s possible to keep the name of your church the same, stay in the same location, and keep the same leadership. But it’s also necessary to lay all of these on the altar if a new name, a new spot, and a new approach to ministry will more effectively reach your community.

There are absolutely success stories out there from which to learn. Pastor Jeremy Franklin turned it around at Oasis Church (formerly Grace Temple Baptist Church) in Arlington, Texas. Pastor Bruce Moore gave his church one year to live and shared with them the date of their final service if they chose to remain the same. Now, Christ Fellowship in Tampa is a thriving, evangelistically effective multi-cultural church in the heart of a metro area. Pastor Dom Ruso has led a formerly large church that had experienced significant decline to shift things and grow again at Temple Baptist Church in Sarnia, Ontario (hear Cary Nieuwhof interview with Dom about his experience transitioning a declining church via Cary’s Leadership Podcast).

And that painful cutting loose of our attachments and traditions and embracing of a whole new future is just the beginning. The hard work lies ahead. Therefore, if you can’t or won’t take radical action, then it’s time to do something altogether different, and it’s not as negative as it sounds at first.

Die. With dignity.

Imagine closing your church doors with heavy hearts, but high hopes for the future. It’s happening in pockets across the country as churches decide to release the kingdom assets they’re currently sitting on and invest in new works. Gather the leadership, chart a course for closing, dissolving assets, and re-distributing all assets to new church plants and missions agencies. Ideally, link up with the particular church plant that will be using the funds and host a joint-service with them near your final Sunday and make it a big celebration.

A grain of wheat seems to die when it falls to the ground, but it actually produces new, fresh life. And so can your church!

One of my mentors, Grady Higgs, often said he’d hate to be the church sitting on an enormous savings account when Jesus returns. Remember the big assessment question: Will we, by fighting for our survival, consume resources that could be better invested in other ways for the growth of God’s Kingdom? It could be that the greatest act of ministry in the history of your church is to unselfishly invest yourself back into the Kingdom by helping a new birth happen.

Pictured: Temple Baptist Church in Sarnia, Ontario – a healthy turn-around church.

The Way to Find Your Life Is to Lose It

Success is something we place a lot of value on in the culture in which we live. We place a high value on achieving, on pushing forward and climbing higher and grasping at what we perceive as success. This comes as a result of our spirit of conquest and our competitive natures. But God’s Kingdom people have values that are flipped on their heads. The American Way isn’t necessarily the Kingdom Way.

Jesus put it this way to his bewildered followers, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” (Matthew 10:39 NLT)

There isn’t anything wrong with succeeding, unless the pathway toward success takes us away from the life God intended for us to live for Him. While we focus on forming and chasing a big dream, God ultimately calls us to lay our dreams on an altar and pursue Jesus and His Kingdom instead. Sometimes, pursuing Him instead of personal success actually leads to personal success as He places us in positions of influence for His glory’s sake.

If you’re living for the next promotion, the bigger house, the higher position, the image you have in your mind of what “success” looks like, you may miss the very best pursuit of all – the pursuit of knowing your Creator intimately. But if you loosen your grip on your life and yield entirely to His will and His desire for you, your relationship with Him will become far more fulfilling than any position you could ever occupy.

The way to find your life is to lose it, to let it go.

King Jesus Saves and Reigns!

There is good news.We love to take biblical words and weaken their meanings by adopting them for our own usage. One such word is “gospel.” We use it in a light-hearted way when we refer to something as “the gospel truth.” Like when we say, “Donald Trump’s hair is amazing – that’s the gospel truth!” Not only are we stating something subjective in objective terms, we’re also saying something… weird.

What exactly is the gospel? The word literally means “good news.” It’s good news about a Kingdom and its King. The good news began to be heralded with these words, “In the beginning, God created…” When Adam and Eve sinned, the whole human race was plunged into depravity, sinfulness, and lostness. God’s promise to the human race of a coming deliverer was good news. The good news, which was carried down through the lineage of the nation of Israel until Jesus came, was that God would restore all that was lost and broken in His creation.

The good news is the story of redemption. Jesus is its central protagonist and hero. He rose from the soil of Jewish history to live a life no one else had been capable of living. He died on the cross to provide a substitutionary atonement, paying for the penalty incurred by the sins of lost mankind. He rose again from the grave the third day resulting in His absolute victory over sin, death, and the grave.

He commissioned His church to tell the world this good news and empowers her today by the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit. He ascended back to heaven and now rules and rains over this kingdom in a partial sense. That is, he rules and reigns over all submit to Him, receive Him as King, and join His forever family. And someday, He will return visibly and literally to commence His reign over all the earth, redeemed, reconciled, and restored.

That’s the good news. No matter how sin and evil have managed to wreck and ruin humanity, there is good news – King Jesus saves and reigns. No matter the extend of our lostness and brokenness, there is good news – King Jesus saves and reigns. No matter what the powers of the world do to conspire against the rule and authority of God, there is good news – King Jesus saves and reigns.

The question is, have you received King Jesus as your own? The good news is for the world, it is for Israel, it is for the church, and it is for YOU.

When the Church Is Working Right

Old PewsI believe that Jesus was the first church planter. I realize that most evangelicals refer to the Day of Pentecost as the “birthday of the church,” but the church was really born as Jesus began gathering His earliest disciples, and the plan and strategy for the church had been in existence for eternity already.

Jesus gathered a few guys with him at the beginning of His ministry and poured Himself into them. He would often address large throngs but would then retreat into quiet places to instruct the earliest leaders of the church. Then, before He ascended back to the Father’s side, Jesus commissioned His ragtag collection of disciples to carry the gospel everywhere and change the entire world.

We would have come up with a different plan, and our plan probably would have involved committees. We would hire experts and screen the applicants thoroughly so as to weed out any mediocre talent. But Jesus collected together a bunch of guys who didn’t make a lot of sense together and then told them, “I will build my church.”

I have what I believe to be a well-defined ecclesiology (theology of the church) that is rooted in the New Testament and connects with various movements throughout the last 20 centuries. Rather than identifying with Catholicism or the Magisterial Reformers, I tend to identify more with the Anabaptists, Waldenses, and other similar (often underground) groups. Essentially I believe…

  • Jesus started the church Himself. Peter and the apostles merely led it forward.
  • The emphasis in the New Testament is on the localvisible church and not the universal, invisible church.
  • The church is theocratic (not democratic) with Jesus as its Head and Pastors/Edlers/Bishops as its overseers and undershepherds.
  • Even in the darkest of ages, there have always been churches that were true to their biblical roots.
  • There will be churches that are true to their roots until Jesus comes again.
  • The church is an assembly of baptized believers in Jesus Christ.
  • The church must be faithful in its theology and fruitful in its ministry.

And like Bill Hybels, I believe…

The local church is the hope of the world.

There is nothing like the local church when it’s working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited. It comforts the grieving and heals the broken in the context of community. It builds bridges to seekers and offers truth to the confused. It provides resources for those in need and opens its arms to the forgotten, the downtrodden, the disillusioned. It breaks the chains of addictions, frees the oppressed, and offers belonging to the marginalized of this world. Whatever the capacity for human suffering, the church has a greater capacity for healing and wholeness.

Still to this day, the potential of the local church is almost more than I can grasp. No other organization on earth is like the church. Nothing even comes close.

Does the church have problems? Sure. It is, after all, made up of human beings who are made of flesh and blood, so all of the relationship problems that exist in the world as a result of sin find their way into the community of the church as well. But even as it struggles, it also effectively changes the world.

When Rick and Kay Warren were participating in a discussion among global leaders about how to help the AIDS crisis in Africa, Rick pointed out that while there were only three hospitals in Rwanda, there were 700 churches. If those churches could be mobilized for basic medical care, it would make a huge difference in a suffering population. He further pointed out that there are villages with no doctors, grocery stores, or electricity, but those villages have churches in them.

From a tiny seed in Jesus’ time, the church has grown to be an amazing living organism. It’s not a building, a denomination, or a mere religion. The church is a movement of God and I believe it’s imperative for every believer to be attending and serving through a thriving community of believers.

We value the local church at Grace Hills. In fact, we value every local church that teaches a biblical gospel and want them all to succeed, even when they’re right next door. We state this value like this…

The local church is the hope of the world, and the kingdom comes first, even before our own success. We will multiply as believers, as small groups, and as a church to fill the world with God’s glory.

We believe God has an intentional strategy for us to follow that involves multiplying at every level. We will share the gospel as believers, raise up new leaders within our small groups to start new small groups, invest heavily in church planting, and also start new services, venues, campuses, or whatever else it takes to reach people for Jesus. And while we’re at it, we’ll do whatever we can to resource other churches as we learn from our own successes and mistakes.

When the church is working right, there’s nothing else like it. It’s described as the bride of Christ. He loved the church and gave Himself for her. He defends her. He doesn’t take it lightly when people hurt or threaten her, from within or without. And He will come again to her rescue someday. In the meantime, He has commissioned her to share the gospel and the grace of God with all the world for God’s glory.

So get in. Get involved. And let’s get going!

photo credit: Robert Hafley

Sacrifice Everything For Buried Treasure

Last night, I spent some time with the Association of Baptist Students at The Hedge, their Tuesday night gathering. I talked about going “all in for the kingdom” and shared from the parables Jesus told about the value of discovering the rule and reign of Christ over all things.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field. Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it.

~ Matthew 13:44-46 NLT

When you discover something as infinitely fulfilling and valuable as a personal relationship with King Jesus, you go “all in.” You sell everything else and let nothing stop you from obtaining all of the abundant life God wants to offer you.

Today, I stumbled across a movie less than twenty minutes long. And if you have twenty minutes, you have to watch Jack and the Dustbowl.

It’s HD – watch it full screen!

Whitestone Motion Pictures proudly presents Jack and the Dustbowl, a short film about overcoming adversity and making the impossible, possible.

Jack Spriggs, a poor dust bowl farmer from Alabama, is determined to keep his family’s land. Set during the Great Depression, record heat waves and over-farming have turned the once fertile soil into worthless dust. Refusing to become a victim of his circumstances, Jack embraces his surroundings and digs in. Jack’s tenacious spirit and ingenuity will either keep his family together or he’ll lose everything trying.

This film is handcrafted by the artisans of Whitestone Motion Pictures. Behind the Scenes. The Soundtrack. Twitter: @whitestonemp.

When you find real treasure… sell everything else.