Thom Rainer is a church growth consultant, author of several books on evangelism and leadership, and the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Prior to LifeWay, he served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for twelve years where he was the founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism.
He is a 1977 graduate of the University of Alabama and earned his Master of Divinity and Ph.D. degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And I’m a fan — and I’d be a fan even if he wasn’t an Alabama graduate.
He recently posted an article on how to resuscitate a dying church based on actual churches where this had happened.
Now, it’s difficult, and most churches that try to self-resuscitate fail — presumably because they still have the same problems that nearly killed them in the first place. But for those churches that managed it, here’s what they did —
- A prolonged period of prayer.
It’s a cliche but a true cliche. It starts with prayer, and if your church is too secular or has too little faith to call on God for help, it probably needs to stay dead anyway.
2. A covenant to forsake self.
Some churches even had the members sign a covenant agreeing to put other ahead of their own wishes.
3. A willingness to kill sacred cows.
Often a church doesn’t realize what traditions and practices are holding them back until they’ve done through a season of prayer.
4. A commitment to see through the eyes of the outsider.
This is a discipline that takes some practice. How do the grounds look to an outsider? the foyer? the auditorium? the classrooms? We get habituated to what we see every week, and so the trash and such become invisible to us.
In our old building (since torn down), my wife was asked to direct a friend’s wedding. I was put on clean up duty – get all the trash out of the auditorium and foyer and throw it away. I thought this would be an easy job.
Two giant leaf bags filled to overflowing later, I was amazed at the sheer volume of garbage that had been laying around. Some could be dated as over a decade old! Some needed to be carbon-dated but clearly related to the time of wooly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers. I mean, there was garbage everywhere, and hundreds of cleanings by janitors and volunteers had done nothing to get rid of lesson books from over a decade in the past! No one was willing to make the decision to throw anything away!
And it was all invisible to me until I started cleaning the trash out. But I’m sure our visitors saw the trash on every visit.
5. An agreement to connect and invite.
Don’t hire a “personal worker” to do your evangelism for you. Rather, equip the members to all participate — and to do so as a team. If I invite a friend, I need to be able to count on my fellow members and church leaders to be genuinely friendly and to not say insulting things in Bible class about non-Church of Christ members.
6. A decision to move beyond the negative naysayers.
This is the hardest part, because the most negative, most self-interested, most resistant to change members will often be the best friends of the elders.
Now, I said it before and it’s still true. If our members become more self-interested and less outsider focused the longer they are members, we are teaching a false gospel. I mean, if we leaders were doing our jobs, members would grow and mature to become more and more like Jesus over time. But our members in fact become more selfish — meaning we’re teaching something other than Christianity.
So start by asking how the leadership messed up to create old members who care little for the lost. Repent. Announce your repentance and apologize to the church for having done such a poor job of leading the church toward Jesus. Take all the blame on yourself, and then resolutely teach the truth of what it means to follow Jesus.
Now, you likely won’t find a sermon that actually teaches an insider focus. What you’ll find is the absence of sermons that challenge the status quo. You’ll find a long list of decisions made to keep the peace rather than to live like Jesus. You’ll find committee appointments given only to long-term members, guarantying them a veto over any change. You’ll find a fear to even discuss the possibility of discussing change for fear of the holy hell the old members will raise. And for those, you owe your members an apology and repentance.
And like all apologies, this one needs to be abject. That is, there is no equivocating, no excuses, and no blaming others for your own mistakes. Declare it wrong, sinful, anti-gospel, and inexcusable. After all, the more blame you take, the more clear it becomes that those attitudes cannot be tolerated in a Christian church — all without one word of criticism of those who harbor selfishness.
It’ll work. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up. Count on it.