Estimates show 80-120 churches close their doors for the final time each week. Fairfax Baptist Church will too. Just like a human has a certain lifespan, so do churches. Hear me, this church will cease to exist one day. That day might be in February 2034 or in 2023 or in the year 2280. None of us can truly know, but we can help to make sure that the date is later rather than sooner.
How do I know this church will die? Because all churches die. Some of the world’s great cathedrals still open their doors every day, but for all practical purposes, they are nothing but a place for tourists, major events, and a house of tombs, not worship services. A major reason many churches die is that they have no purpose, and thus they lose all hope. We have defined a purpose, but unless we embrace that purpose, we, too, may lose hope. And without hope, people, and church’s will die.
A few years ago, Thom Rainer wrote a book called Autopsy of a Deceased Church. In the book, Rainer provides a glimpse into the common characteristics which cause churches to die. Please understand, most churches do not die an instant death, rather, over a period of time decline happens. The characteristics of this decline, as noted by Rainer, are:
The Past is the Hero
Typical: Everyone laments not being in the good ol’ days.
Fairfax: This was more true when I came, and is still true now, but I think some have a hope for the future.
Truth: God is the God of the present – I AM, not I was (Exodus 3.6). We need to engage Him now.
Refusing to Look Like the Community
Typical: People do not feel welcome in the church. The church focuses on preservation rather than on serving the community.
Fairfax: Again, I believe this was more true in the past. The attitude persists somewhat, but church members appear to be more accepting than when I came.
Truth: We need to be with people in the community to impact their lives (Acts 2.46-47).
An Inward-Focused Budget
Typical: When budgets cuts are necessary, the cuts are to missions and ministry, not to the buildings and personnel. What makes us comfortable is what we will not cut.
Fairfax: We do well here. Just shy of 20% of our budget is for missions. And that doesn’t count Annie Armstrong, Reuben L South, Lottie Moon, or piki piki, etc.
Truth: We are to be cheerful in our giving and give well knowing we reap what we sow (2 Corinthians 9.6-8).
Omitting the Great Commission
Typical: Most church members know the words of the Great Commission, but do not live by them.
Fairfax: We find it easier to give money so others will do this rather than give of ourselves.
Truth: The verb is to make disciples (the focus of this series). But to make disciples requires us to be going, baptizing, and teaching. These are the words of Jesus (Matthew 28.19-20). Will we ignore them?
Being Driven by Personal Preference
Typical: My worship style. My length of service. My activities. My minister. My, my, my.
Fairfax: You all put up with a lot from me. I know some of this is true sentiment is true here, but nothing like most churches.
Truth: Philippians 2.2-11 – We must consider others and we must have the mind of Christ!
Decrease In Pastoral Tenure
Typical: Every 2-3 years. Pastor is asked to restore hope, lead in a few changes, finds resistance, leaves (asked to)
Fairfax: Every 4 years since Momberg (9) and Hendricks (12). Grimmett (9+, 1920s). With 6 years in Fairfax, I am tied for the 4th longest tenure in the churches 133 years.
Truth: Bible does not provide guidelines here, but modern research shows that a church often has its best years around the 6th-10th years of a pastor’s tenure. I have heard countless stories of 1974-1976 time-frame which was Hendrick’s 6th-8th years.
Not Praying Together
Typical: Church feels like it is praying, but does not really or is a ritual instead of a time of devotion.
Fairfax: Our prayer meetings here are all but dead. On May 3, we had 4. May 17, three. I am not saying people may not pray in homes and such. But let’s face it, we fail to pray corporately.
Truth: Acts 2.42 says they were devoted – including to praying together.
A Lack of Clear Purpose
Typical: Being in a rut. Going through the motions. Fearful to make any effort of change.
Fairfax: I think this was true in the past. I think sometimes it still is true. Although we have a purpose, I am not certain how many really know the purpose. And until we own it together, we will still have further to go than we have already come.
Truth: Exalt the Savior (John 12.32). Equip the Saint (Ephesians 4.11-13). Evangelize the Sinner (Acts 1.8).
A Focus on the Facilities
Typical: Fighting over pulpits, carpet, rooms, the color of paint, etc.
Fairfax: We have purchased property, made decisions about major repairs or updates, and now look to update the sanctuary – all with much discussion, but no real dissension.
Truth: Our focus needs to be on the things of heaven, not of earth (Matthew 6.19-21). As we update our sanctuary, one of the reasons I am strongly advocating we also give to support building churches in Kenya is to maintain a healthy balance in our approach to the use of money – as we build for us, let us build for others as well.
Now that we have looked at the results of the autopsy of other churches, let’s look at the scorecard for our church. On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being near death and 10 being vibrant, this would be my thoughts. The parentheses represent what I believe to be our trend.
- The Past is the Hero – 4 (up)
- Refusing to Look Like the Community – 5 (up)
- An Inward-Focused Budget – 9 (up)
- Omitting the Great Commission – 3 (up)
- Being Driven by Personal Preference – 7 (up)
- Decrease In Pastoral Tenure – 3 (up)
- Not Praying Together – 2 (down)
- A Lack of Clear Purpose – 5 (up)
- A Focus on the Facilities – 7 (up)
Scores < 5 = 4
Scores of 5 = 2
Scores > 5 = 3
TOTAL: 45 (90)
So, what can we do to prevent the death rattle from getting louder? Let me spend a few minutes providing two thoughts.
Embrace Our Purpose
First, we need to embrace our purpose. If we, all of us, begin to embrace the vision, the mission, the strategy, and the steps, it will make a difference across the board. So, one aspect of our service in the next couple of months will include a time when we recite our GPS together. You have heard these statements from me for the last 5 years (and the E-E-E for 6). You have seen them in every bulletin for five years and in the newsletter or hanging in the church for the past several months. So, let’s internal them a bit by saying them aloud – together.
Vision: To be A large church in a small town. (Matthew 5.13-16)
- Exalt the Savior (John 12.32)
- Equip the Saint (Ephesians 4.11-13)
- Evangelize the Sinner (Acts 1.8)
- Jesus (Matthew 16.18-19) – The One worth following.
- Observe (Colossians 1.28-29) – Following the commands of Jesus.
- Unite (1 Corinthians 1.10) – Being one in fellowship with other believers.
- Revere (John 12.32) – Worshipping God in all aspects of our lives.
- Nurture (Ephesians 4.12-13) – Building up others for the work of ministry.
- Engage (Acts 1.8) – Stirring the hearts of all people with the Gospel.
- You (Matthew 15.15-16) – The one who decides to follow.
- LEARN With Each Other (Acts 17.10-12)
- LIVE For Each Other (Romans 15.1-2)
- LOVE God and All Others (Matthew 22.37-39)
- LEAD One Another (to Follow Jesus) (2 Timothy 2.2)
- (LEAVE) When Called by the One True Other (Acts 13.1-3)
The key is that any purpose we may claim must be biblical. That is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us collectively as a church. That is the reason our God’s Path for Servants (GPS) not only has a statement for us to consider, but a verse or verses to guide us as well.
Secondly, we need to focus on making disciples. (Make Disciples) The steps we just read are a process for disciple-making. The strategy encompasses all aspects of a kingdom-focused church and therefore embraces discipleship. Our mission will be fulfilled when all of us are living as true disciples, which will impact this town and achieve our vision. So, why doesn’t this happen. Well, over the past many decades many churches have focused more on being a church than on having disciples. Anyone can come to a church and feel like they belong. That is fine, but that is not what Jesus said we should do. First, Jesus said what He would do. He would “build His church” which includes each person within the church and then all of us collectively. Then, He said what we should do – “make disciples.” If we focus on making disciples our churches will grow. If we focus on being a church, the church will eventually die.
Next week we will look at what a true disciple should do. Then, over the next several weeks, we will review what a disciple-making church might look like and explore several reasons why some churches refuse to, or simply are unable to, make disciples.
In short, these reasons relate to trust, autonomy, initiative, ability, identity, intimacy, and purpose which ultimately lead people (and churches) to feel good about their lives or to be in despair. Again, we will review these items as it relates to a disciple individually, and to a church’s focus on making disciples in the coming weeks.
JOURNEY: The JOURNEY letter for this week is: JOURNEY. I chose the full word this week to remind us that we are all on a journey and need to be faithful to complete our journey well.
REMEMBRANCE: Jesus said, “I will build my church.” But that building includes you and I going out to make disciples of all nations beginning in Fairfax.
NEXT STEP(S): Learn Prepare yourself to be a (better) disciple-maker for Jesus.