Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Church In Decline

I very much dislike having to qualify an opinion. It seems to me rather obvious that an opinion is, by definition, not necessarily universally agreed upon logic and fact but rather based upon personal rationalizations, anecdote and experience.

That being said, my family and I have travelled the midwest and some of the south for over 7 years as a full-time evangelist. What follows are not the findings of a university trained statistician but rather the gleanings of 10 years in active ministry. Whatever that's worth.

Furthermore, I feel it is important for anyone endeavoring to do anything worthwhile, personally or corporately, to stop on occasion and evaluate your progress and effectiveness. That is my disclaimer.

I was speaking to a friend today, who is also an evangelist, about a church we had been at for 3 weeks. It is an amazing place with honest, sincere people passionately trying to follow Jesus Christ. In discussing this church we commented on how refreshing it was to find a place where it felt like a genuine move of God was present. We both found it so refreshing because all too often we find ourselves ministering in churches that are in decline. There's no definitive way to diagnosis this but the symptoms are easy to feel.

1. Apathetic Worship
In my experience one of the first symptoms a church might be in decline is apathetic worship. There should be something about the worship experience of a church that draws the focus and enthusiasm of those in attendance. It should be full of passion and expression of the worshippers heart to God and Gods work in our lives. When people find themselves unable to prevent their mind from wandering and can be unfocused and unexpressive, to me, that's a sign that something is in decline in that church body. If the Spirit of God is present and working in a church in a real way, it will affect the way people in that church respond to His Word and His people.

2. Internal Focus
It seems one of the easiest causes of decline to develop, as well as the most easily overlooked sign of church decline, is that of focus. Without being intentional it is natural for any organization, group or church to internalize, stagnate and fade. It can be even easier to overlook. We're meeting our needs. We feel blessed and happy with where we are and what we have and see no need to challenge our comfort level. When the dominant conversations and concerns around a church are the felt needs of those in the establishment, how the building and budgets can meet their preferences, you might be witnessing a church in decline.

3. Leadership vs. Discipleship
I've seen many churches where the Pastor is, intentionally or unintentionally, disconnected from the people. Some are simply so unconcerned with their task of making disciples that they disconnect. Others feel they must remain aloof in order to retain their Pastoral aura. That kind of leadership simply will not sustain a healthy church. Many Pastors feel if they're friends with a person in their church they can't speak as the "voice of God" in their life. Not true. People trust those they know. You can talk all day and it will not affect the way I live unless you have influence to disciple me. The only way to gain that kind of influence in my life is to be my friend.

4. Closed Culture
This is one of those symptoms that "you know it when you see it". There's a lack of interest in the ministries of the church. No one wants to volunteer for fear of what so-and-so will say of their performance. Usually there's a small handful of people who control things and in order to fit into the culture of the church you must be welcomed or approved of by some if not all of that elite group. This is the kind of church that spends more effort defending the extra-biblical minutiae that define their cultural identity than preaching the teachings of Jesus. What Bible version we use, what kind of songs we sing, how we dress for service and when we have service become our top priorities (often whether we realize it or not).

5. Prayerlessness
When a church makes prayer a low priority they make God a low priority and that never works.

I believe these are all symptoms that can be turned around. With prayer, a willingness to examine our motives, purpose and even a willingness to repent of attitudes that have driven our actions. I wonder what would happen if more churches were willing to pray and ask God to show them what they were doing wrong and how to serve in a way that more fully pleases Him.

By the way, if you have a problem with the premise that your church might be doing something wrong, you might be in a church in decline.

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