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.
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.