How Churches Die Spiritually: Part One
By: Bill Easum
Most established Protestant churches today are spiritually dead. I don’t believe church leaders intentionally set out to cause their church to become spiritually dead. Most church leaders in established churches I’ve worked with believe their actions are meant for just the opposite – to keep their church alive. The problem is, their actions are designed merely to help their church survive. But God wants far more from the Church. God doesn’t care if their church survives. God wants their church to be part of the movement designed to bring the whole creation into submission to God. Anything short of that is failure.

So how did most established Protestant churches become spiritually dead? I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. Let me share a brief overview of how I think established Protestantism got to where it is today.

• Action – The church is planted and passionately looks for new members. Everything it does is designed to reach new people. Soon it begins to grow. Baptisms are celebrated. Excitement is everywhere. The future is bright. Leaders aren’t afraid to take risks. The pastor functions like a spiritual entrepreneur, making many of the day to day decisions without the interference of a Board or Constitution so things are accomplished in rapid succession. The leaders don’t mind if the pastor spends more time in the community than in the office.
• Comfort – The church reaches a point where it has enough people to have all the money it needs – usually between 75 and 125 people in worship. It establishes its constitution and Bylaws and organizational structure, most of which is concerned with the internal affairs of the congregation rather than the original mission of reaching new people. If the pastor doesn’t embed the Great Commission into the DNA of the congregation and personally role model outreach, leaders begin to rely more on the institutional structure, and decisions begin to slow down and are watered down by congregational consensus. The leaders begin to question the need for more people, and growth begins to plateau. The leaders begin to ask two questions: “If we do this we won’t know everyone anymore;” and “Don’t you think we have enough people now?” A spiritually alive pastor will respond with something like, “Isn’t the real question ‘Does everyone in town know God?’ and ‘Can a church ever have enough people if it is pursuing the Great Commission?’”’ Without such a response from the pastor, the spiritual death of the congregation begins. If the Great Commission isn’t embedded in the leadership, the arrival of a new pastor spells trouble because the odds are the new pastor will follow the institutional guidelines and direction of the church leadership rather than the mandate of the Gospel (don’t get mad; that is what I see happening most often).
• Complacency – The church no longer feels an urgent need to reach more people since it has enough money to pay the bills. At this point the church makes a sudden, deadly shift and begins to expect the pastor to be there for them rather than reaching new people. They want the pastor in the office more than in the community. The leaders begin to ask “Shouldn’t we take better care of who we’ve got before we go after anymore people?” “I think it is the duty of the pastor to visit everyone in the hospital.” “The pastor is not as visible and convenient as he/she used to be.” “Why should we be trained to do ministry? Isn’t that what we pay the pastor for?” If the pastor gives in, the pastor is now turned into a chaplain rather than an equipper and the decline begins. The longer the church goes from this point without turnaround, the harder the turnaround becomes until the final stages of life.
• Status quo – The church becomes content with the way things are and establishes patterns of behavior designed to keep everything just as it is. The statement “We’ve never done that before and we aren’t going to do so now” becomes the church’s mission in life. The leaders like things just as they are and will do almost anything to keep the status quo. At this point a subtle shift begins to happen – the leaders begin to talk more about the needs of their church than about their need of a relationship with Jesus. The entitlements of membership are now celebrated. Their comment to the institution takes the place of their obedience to God through Jesus Christ. The mandate of the Great Commission is replaced with the mandate to preserve the institution at all costs. The church begins to resemble a club.
• Fear of change – The church is so content with the status quo that it fears any kind of change because change would upset the balance of power and cause loss of control. So it clamps down even harder on anything that might upset the status quo or cost any money. It passes rules or policies to avoid bad things from happening. The leaders say to the pastor “We should try to reach out more to our inactives before going after new people.” The last thing the leaders want is new blood since it might challenge the status quo. After all “we are family now.” At this point turnaround becomes a battleground seldom won.
• Angst over the future – The church begins to realize that it is not as healthy as it once was due to a shortage of money and members. It longs for the good old days with the church was vibrant and healthy (i.e. when we were able to pay the bills). If church has any money in the bank, it begins to rely on the money as its savoir. Line item budgets are read more closely than the Scripture and guess what happens to their relationship with Jesus? He is replaced by the culture of fear. At this point God leaves the room and the church is on its own!
• Entrenched fearful state – The church hunkers down and guards what little people and money it has instead of addressing the issues. Survival becomes the mission in life and change becomes the primary enemy. In a world of incremental change such a stance isn’t good but it isn’t deadly. But in a world of exponential change like the one we live in today such a stance is deadly. The more the church hunkers down the faster it declines.
• Void of positive leadership – Because of the culture of fear and the loss of any spiritual vitality, the few remaining spiritual leaders, who had held out some hope for the church, leave because they want to be where God is doing something. Without leaders to lead them, the remaining leaders leave the church and the controllers fill the vacuum. Although it’s seldom vocalized, the remaining leaders say “I’m not going to be here in 20 years, so why should I want to do anything?” At this point the church is totally spiritually dead. Only a small, aging, remnant remains, and they are seldom in power.
• Spiral downward – The church goes into a freefall in all areas of life and ministry and focuses even more on its selfish need to survive. It is also the stage which is the most open to turnaround.

Spiritual death does not happen overnight nor is it the fault of any one group of people. It takes time for churches to wind up spiritually dead.

Next week we will look at how churches can reverse this trend.