By Thom Rainer
The conversation surprised me.
I was recently meeting with about a dozen members of a church that was on the precipice of closing. During their perceived “good old days,” the average worship attendance was in the 40s and 50s. Now the church attendance was in the teens. The church was on metaphorical life support.
I shared with them some items of urgency that might give them some glimmer of hope. So I was surprised when one of the members asked me a question that seemed to come from nowhere: “Will we have to sing from screens instead of hymnals?” she asked with a tinge of anger.
I never responded directly to the question. It was too late. The few members were of one mind about an issue so peripheral I had never anticipated it. I left saddened.
The church had chosen to die.
The Need and the Passion
It is my life and ministry passion to help churches, particularly struggling churches, to revitalize. One of the greatest needs of churches today is to choose to live and to thrive.
Unfortunately, many congregations are choosing to die. For certain, they are not calling a business meeting and making a motion to die. Their choices are more subtle and, often, more incremental. But the end result is the same.
Churches are choosing to die.
Five Deadly Choices
So what are churches doing specifically that leads to their demise? Here are five of the more common choices.
- They refuse to face reality. I was in a dying church recently. The congregational average attendance was 425 seven years ago. Today it is 185. I could find no one in the church who thought the trends were bad. They were in a state of delusion and denial.
- They are more concerned about greater comfort than the Great Commission.Church membership has become self-serving. The church is more like a country club than the body of Christ. People are “paying dues” to get what they want in the church. It’s all about their preferences and desires.
- They are unwilling to accept responsibility. It’s the fault of culture. All the new churches in town are to blame. If someone wants to come to our church, they know where we are. People just don’t want to come to church anymore. Excuses and more excuses. I have never been in a community that is nearly fully churched. There are many people to reach. Excuses preclude obedience.
- They are too busy fighting and criticizing. If we could take the energy of church critics and antagonists into reaching people with the gospel, our churches would become evangelistic forces. Unfortunately in many churches, members expend most of their energies criticizing leadership and others, and fighting over trivial issues.
- They are confusing non-negotiables with negotiables. Almost ten years ago, a couple of men who live near me asked to visit with me in my home. They wanted me to consider visiting their church. One of the men told me their church was one of the few in the area defending the faith. I asked him what he meant by that. He explained that the faith was one particular Bible translation and traditional hymns. I wasn’t sure what happened to the bodily resurrection and substitutionary atonement. The church died within seven years.
Choosing to Live Rather Than Die
Most churches have choices to live or die. We use the word “revitalize” because it means to live again. I hope you will join me in this passion to see unhealthy churches become healthy, to see churches choose to live.
As one way of being a part of this movement of revitalization, I have teamed up with Revitalized Churches in Florida to offer the best resources we can to help in this cause. They are once again offering the resource that has helped hundreds of churches move toward revitalization.
Those churches have chosen to live.
Such is my prayer for your church.
This article was originally published at ThomRainer.com on November 4, 2015. Thom S. Rainer serves as president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and seven grandchildren. Dr. Rainer can be found on Twitter @ThomRainer and at facebook.com/Thom.S.Rainer.
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My work allows me the luxury of being able to visit many different churches in a number of locations, of both the denominational and non-denominational variety. While I usually stick to evangelical assemblies, I frequently visit Baptist, Assembly of God, Independent Christian Churches, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and many more.
Over the last year my wife and I have intentionally visited ten churches, all evangelical, and all who have clear Vision/Mission statements about reaching the lost and growing the Kingdom. Every single church had a Guest or Visitor Card that they asked you to fill out. We filled one out at each church and gave all of the correct information, including name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. None of the ministers knew us and I did not volunteer any information about my pastoral background.
Now here was the shocker for me – while most of the ten churches were somewhat friendly and offered a decent worship experience, only one of the ten followed up with us based on the information we gave them! Only one out of ten! And to top it off, half of the churches said during the service that if you filled out the Guest Card they would be sending you a gift of some kind in the mail.
I don’t have any studies to back up what I’m about to say, but based on personal experience, about 2 out of 10 visitors will fill out your Guest Card. Most people will not fill it out on their first visit because they don’t know you yet and are uncomfortable with the thought of some strange religious group hounding them. That’s understandable.
But when they do fill it out, it is absolutely inexcusable for the church not to follow-up with those people in some way, shape, or form. I’m not suggesting being intrusive or bothering people, but if you’re not even going to send a “Thank You For Visiting” note, you really shouldn’t be asking people to fill out the card at all. For all we know the people filling out the card might not even be in a relationship with Christ and we have an opportunity that has been handed to us by God to reach out to them. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing so.
I will not name the churches that did not follow up, but I will name the one that did. It was Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. We visited on a Sunday Morning. On Wednesday we received a handwritten note from a couple that were members at the church thanking us for visiting. On Thursday we received a letter from their financial secretary thanking us for giving. On Friday we received a letter from the pastor thanking us for attending and including a brochure with helpful information about classes, worship, times, etc… While I haven’t asked, I am almost positive that they have a system set up to do this with each visitor who fills out the card.
While I was impressed with what Immanuel Baptist Church did, I shouldn’t have been, because this should be the norm. The fact that it isn’t tells me quite a bit about how serious the other churches were about evangelism, gaining and retaining members, and outreach in general. I realize that not every church has the resources to put a lot of money into this type of thing, but anyone can set up a small volunteer team to make sure that the Visitor Cards are gathered and, at the very least, a note sent out on Monday letting them know you are glad they stopped by.
I want to encourage you today to begin to do this if you’re not doing it already. From my somewhat limited experience, it will help you to stand out in the crowd and just possibly give you the opportunity to lead more and more people to Christ.
That’s what it’s all about anyway…isn’t it?
Barry L. Davis spent two decades as a Senior Pastor and started the ministry of The Pastor’s Helper in 1996. The Pastor’s Helper strives to provide tools and resources to help pastors succeed in their ministry calling.
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Dr. Fred Luter, Jr. Pastor, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, New Orleans, LA.
Former President, Southern Baptist Convention
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Dr. Dan Reiland, Executive Pastor, 12Stone Church, Lawrenceville, GA.
As much as I love the Christmas season, one of the hardest parts for pastors is discerning how to package the most familiar story of Christianity in a new and fresh way each year. Obviously, this should be a work of God’s Spirit, but I believe He uses the Body to bless one another. Such is the case with this wonderful resource. I can see myself referring to this often. Christmas is coming — I’m feeling more prepared already!
Ron Edmondson, Senior Pastor, Immanuel Baptist Church, Lexington, KY.
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Myles Holmes, Pastor, REVIVE Assembly of God, St. Louis, MO.
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Dr. Tom LaHue, Senior Minister, Port Orange Christian Church, Port Orange, FL.