By Bill Easum
For much of the past three decades, denominational officials have been promoting seminars and programs aimed at revitalizing the church. I know because I have been the speaker or consultant to many of these groups. For many of these leaders, their goal was to breathe new life into churches experiencing declining memberships and lack of commitment. Yet after years of trying to revitalize these churches, the vast majority of them are still declining. What gives?
Reformation, renewal, and revitalization assume some preexisting foundation of faith from which to raise up a new church. But what if that assumption isn’t correct? What if the assumption is part of our problem? What if being a member of a church for 40 years doesn’t automatically guarantee any spiritual depth? What if holding every office in the church doesn’t automatically mean someone is a disciple of Jesus Christ? Do we dare look deep enough into our souls to find answers to these questions?
Based on the conversations and actions of the thousands of Protestant leaders with whom I worked over the years, I have concluded that most of them are spiritually dead and their institutions have ceased being the church. They have the form but not the substance of what it means to be the church.
Let me define what I mean by spiritually dead churches. If your church spends most of its energy on itself and its members, it’s spiritually dead.
Such churches are living corpses. They are physically alive; some may even be growing; but they are spiritually dead to the mission of the New Testament church—to make disciples of Jesus Christ. They’ve turned inward and exist solely for themselves. They look for ways to serve themselves, and the kingdom be damned.
They’re like baby birds sitting in the nest with their mouths open waiting for momma bird (pastor) to feed them with no concept that Jesus intends them to feed others. Oh, they might collect money to send away to some distant mission field, but they’re all thumbs when it comes to sharing the good news with their neighbor or community. What growth they might experience is not of their doing—it just happens because of the population growth around them.
Here are eight death clues. Spiritually dead churches:
- Have lost their sense of mission to those who have not heard about Jesus Christ and do not pant after the Great Commission;
- Exist primarily to provide fellowship for the “members of the club;”
- Expect their pastors to focus primarily on ministering to the members’ personal spiritual needs;
- Design ministry to meet the needs of their members;
- Have no idea about the needs of the “stranger outside the gates;”
- Are focused more on the past than the future;
- Often experience major forms of conflict;
- And watch the bottom line of the financial statement more than the number of confessions of faith.
Bringing life back
The starting point for unfreezing a stuck organizational system is the development of a solid community of faith that includes spiritual leaders, the absence of major conflict, trust, and a desire to connect with the unchurched world.
True spiritual maturity is approached when people turn their attention to those outside the church and seek ways to spread the good news rather than exercise their entitlements as members. Unfortunately, too many pastors assume their church has spiritual leaders and skip right over this starting point. It has become apparent to me that most church leaders do not understand that the decline of their church is due to the lack of spiritual depth on the part of their leadership.
So, now, I want to go deeper on the spiritual issue. It’s not just that our churches are stuck; they are spiritually bankrupt!
I know. These churches are filled mostly with good Christian people, but there’s no discernable spiritual power, just good Christian people—and we all know what Jesus said about being good. (Mark 10:18)
So it’s obvious. Isn’t it? The only solution for spiritually dead congregations is resurrection. You can’t revitalize something that is dead. They must be brought to life again! And that is resurrection.
Revitalization is a waste of time. You can’t breathe life into a corpse. Only God can do that, and that is resurrection.
My experience has taught me the resurrection of a church happens in three stages. It begins with a new pastor. Either the pastor experiences a personal resurrection or the church actually gets a new pastor. Next is the resurrection of the leaders of the church either by transformation or replacement. Finally, the church itself is resurrected and turned around through some tactical change. Then, if resurrection happens, our behavior changes:
- The church turns outward in its focus.
- Jesus, not the institution, will become the object of our affection.
- The Great Commission will become our mandate, and we will measure everything we do by how many new converts we make rather than whether we have a black bottom line.
- Membership in the Kingdom will replace membership in the church.
- Pastors will cease being chaplains of pastoral care and will become modern-day apostles of Jesus Christ.
- And those who try to control the church with an iron fist or intimidate the church at every turn of the road will be shown the door.
The primary reason society is shunning the institutional church is because for the most part it is spiritually dead. Spiritually alive churches, no matter what their form or where they are planted, always grow. That is the nature of the beast. That is the kind of church God honors. That is what the church was put on earth to do—spread the good news. When a church faithfully does that, it grows. Period.
Adapted from “A Second Resurrection” by Bill Easum from Abingdon Press