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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.

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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.

Thanks to the Churches of the Baptist Missionary Association of America

2014 BMA Missionary Commissioning

Grady Higgs, a mentor and friend, praying over 13 new missionaries being commissioned.

I’ve just returned from Little Rock where the Baptist Missionary Association of America had its annual meeting. With the exception of the one year I spent at Saddleback Church, I’ve pastored churches associated with the BMA since I was 19 years old and I attended Central Baptist College, a BMA college (one of the best liberal arts colleges on the planet, by the way).

Many of my close friends are associated with other denominations and still others don’t like the very idea of denominations, but personally I’m attached for some good reasons. I wanted to offer up an explanation about why I’m so thankful and enthusiastic to be part of this great group of churches.

1. We love Jesus together. One of the quotes I tweeted from the meeting was from the report of the BMA Seminary by Dr. Charley Holmes who proclaimed, “If we want to change the world, we need Christ-centered preaching, Christ-centered worship, and Christ-centered discipleship.” I’m all for the supremacy of Jesus Christ in all things and I love that He takes center stage.

2. We trust God’s Word together. We’ve never needed a conservative resurgence (a movement I was thankful to see in the SBC) because, from day one, the BMA has been an association of churches bound by a common belief that the Bible is absolutely God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word. We can celebrate a diversity of methodologies and approaches to communicating the gospel while affirming that there is indeed only one gospel – the story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection so that we might be justified by grace through faith in Him.

3. We make disciples and plant churches together. I’m a big believer that the responsibility of missions rests with the local church and that outsourcing missions to denominations or parachurch organizations only weakens the local church over time. Thankfully, our denominational leaders agree, so the Directors of our various agencies seek to help and to encourage local churches to carry on the work of missions rather than replacing them. And right now, I believe we’re witnessing a pretty amazing movement of local churches being planted who are passionate about multiplying to plant other local churches.

As John David Smith said in his message at the Pastors’ Conference, “Church multiplication trumps church additions every day. And the local church is the instrument for getting it done.”

I’m convinced that church planting and multiplication has been the ideal way of taking the gospel to every people group for twenty centuries now. So it’s a blessing to me that Grace Hills gets to send BJ & Jill Sanders to Papua New Guinea and Michael Smith to Siloam Springs, Arkansas to plant churches that will be part of this great movement as well as supporting other churches in sponsoring other plants in Thailand, in Nixa, Missouri, and dozens of other places.

4. The BMAA has helped Grace Hills Church to be born. Clif Johnson and Garrett Memorial Baptist Church has been our sponsoring church in the BMA and has invested more than we could ask into our planting process. Other churches in the BMA have chipped in too in addition to what the Missions Department has contributed. I’m humbled by that. What a trust. What an honor. It further motivates me to pay it forward and to keep investing in missions until everyone is reached who will ever be reached.

And beyond this financial investment, I am coached very well and regularly by my personal coach, Danny Kirk, who has had a hefty part of helping organize every major decision I’ve faced as a church planter so far.

5. We’re getting creative together. One of the goals I was able to share during Lifeword’s presentation was the task of helping churches more effectively share the gospel using social media. I’ve already been approached by leaders in five states asking for help in the area of creative and social media and I look forward to seeing how that transpires.

I’m glad for this family of fellow believers and missionaries and I’m praying for our collective, collaborative growth. May God’s Spirit continue to fuel a movement of people sharing the good news to the ends of the earth!

Let’s Make Disciples of All the Nations… Today!

Sad List of Unreached People Groups

This “sad list” of 2,500 unreached people groups was unrolled during our service today. Photo by Kristen H.

Jesus told us plainly, don’t talk about a harvest happening someday. Look at the fields that are white for the harvest today. As long as we see the Great Commission as some far off, unreachable goal, we will remain far off from reaching our goal.

Earlier today, 175 people gathered in a movie theater in northwest Arkansas as Grace Hills Church. We’re less than two years old with a modest budget and a long way to go toward being a “grown up” church. But we’re serious about making disciples of all the nations, today, even before we seem ready. I’m moved by how this young body of people have gotten swept up in the Spirit’s desire to carry the gospel further. A few things we mentioned and celebrated today…

  • Michael Smith is a month and a half into a one-year residency with us, after which he’ll go plant a Grace Hills daughter church.
  • A dozen and a half Grace Hills members are heading out in six days on a trip to Honduras and for most of them, it’s their first time out of the country.
  • We’re investing in the Brito-Semedo family who have moved to Thailand to plant churches and share Jesus.
  • We’re also investing in the Herring family and Refuge Church in Nixa, Missouri, a plant that will be launching soon.
  • We’re blessing the Crabtree’s and Sanders’ who are moving to Papau New Guinea to reach an unreached tribe of people after they get their hut built.

And then there are the things we have going on for northwest Arkansas, such as:

  • A growing kids ministry that is about to multiply by starting Cinema56 just for 5th and 6th graders.
  • A student ministry that has taken off recently and is already seeing more than a dozen teens on a Wednesday night in a living room.
  • Celebrate Recovery will be launching early in 2014 at the conclusion of our Road to Recovery sermon series.
  • A lay counseling program to address the soul care needs of our community.
  • A partnership with a local school to provide for some families in need over the holidays.

We could wait until we have a building of our own, a larger budget, or a more stable cash reserve. But the story of Jesus is one that needs telling now. Today. In this moment. Don’t fall into the someday ministry trap. Go to the nations today!

Whatever It Takes, Short of Sin

Into the DarknessAt Grace Hills, we will do whatever it takes, short of sin, to find people far from God and lead them to life in Jesus. That’s one of our core values, and it’s the one that probably creates the most tension for Christians. It’s a value that is drawn straight from Scripture:

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

– 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (NIV)

Paul was writing about his willingness to adapt his personal communication style to that of his hearer, whether Jew or Gentile. Whenever I hear someone say, “we shouldn’t try to be like the world just to reach the world,” I realize I’m probably up against someone who doesn’t like the pain of change or the awkwardness of adapting to the culture. It’s not that I disagree. We really shouldn’t have a theology or philosophy of life like those who haven’t submitted themselves to the God of the Bible. But usually when Christians talk about being “like the world,” they’re talking about non-biblical issues like the way we dress, our style of music, and whether we have tattoos or not.

So let me clarify what I mean when I say “whatever it takes, short of sin…”

  • I mean we will communicate to the culture in its own language, defining our distinctively Christian terms.
  • I mean we will share the gospel through the style of music people listen to.
  • I mean we will remove the awkwardness of walking into a group of strangers.
  • I mean we will address the struggles that people have, the questions they are asking, and the issues they are wrestling with.
  • I mean we will spend time with people who have time-consuming problems and brokenness from their past.
  • I mean we will host events to build a friendship with the community and ask nothing in return.
  • I mean we will love and serve people around us whether or not they ever become a part of our church.
  • I mean we will devote resources to missions locally and internationally to find the lost.
  • I mean we will care more about being respected and listened to by outsiders than being liked by other church leaders.
  • I mean we will speak the truth in love and trust God to heal and change people from the inside out.
  • I mean we will always make room for someone else to sit at our table (or in our theater).
  • I mean we will go all-out when it comes to kids ministry to serve and help parents.
  • I mean we will try things and fail rather than trying nothing to protect our false image of “success.”

That’s what I mean. Or to put it another way…

We will do whatever it takes… (all possible options are on the table)

Anything short of sin… (we do have parameters, but only where the Bible clearly gives them to us)

Anything short of sin to find people… (rather than expecting them to find us)

People who are far from God… (so we don’t expect them to look or act like us)

And lead them to life in Jesus. (the One and Only Savior)

That’s our mission, and it will be fulfilled by people who are willing to leave the comfort zone of their safe, religious bubble to invade the darkness with light.

Planting Churches and Popping Bubbles

Double BubblesWhen we started planting Grace Hills Church, we moved fast. We had our first public information meeting in July of 2011 and launched in January of 2012. Some planting strategists would make the assumption that we were all about getting to the weekend show and not enough about making disciples. Nothing could be further from the truth. We moved fast because we wanted to pop bubbles as quickly as possible. Let me explain.

One of the reasons so many churches are plateaued at an attendance between 48 and 75 is they’ve grown very comfortable with the size of the bubble in which they are doing life. A few people may be added, but there is often little net growth because of the sociological attachment people have to their bubbles. In our first meeting, 35 people were present. It would have been easy to keep the bubble intact and make it all about those 35, but instead, we wanted to pop that bubble as quickly as possible to form new bubbles – multiple bubbles in fact.

We moved quickly because we wanted to keep our culture fluid and help people to understand several principles:

  • It’s not about “us.” If it becomes about “us” it usually leads to becoming about “us versus them,” and we prefer to be “us for them.” We are gathering for the purpose of gathering other, as-of-yet un-gathered people. 
  • A single cell that never multiplies isn’t healthy. Multiplication – not just small groups, but various kinds of micro-communities within the church – is essential and needs to happen in a time frame that is measurable.
  • We want individuals and small groups to reach other individuals and bring them into the church community, but we also want to bring people into the church community and connect them to individuals and small groups.
  • We operate in an apostolic era. Jesus is obviously the ultimate model for living, but to see His plan for disciple-making, we have to look beyond His earthly ministry to see how He empowered the early church through the book of Acts.
  • God uses momentum. You can see it in various eras of the church’s history, even in the book of Acts. Pentecost gave the church initial momentum (Acts 2), then the development of new leadership (Acts 6),  and then the persecution that scattered them (Acts 8) and the commencement of the missionary-sending capacity of the church in Antioch (Acts 13).

I completely understand the current de-emphasis of the weekend service (where we “do” church) and the emphasis on our through-the-week living (when we “are” the church). I get it when guys say, “don’t plant a weekend service, make disciples.” But I don’t believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Launching weekend services, if done with a biblical philosophy of mission, generates momentum and allows people to make disciples in the context of the larger church community.

If you’re stuck, figure out how to pop the current bubble and force people out of their comfort zones to form new bubbles. It may mean launching Sunday services sooner than first anticipated, launching a second service or campus, moving, or starting more small groups. Besides, isn’t it fun to make more bubbles?