The Pain of Disappointment, Part 12 (Pain)

So, how long have you been an elder?

I don’t know. I think it’s been about 40 years.

What’s it been like? Have you enjoyed it?

Well, there have been some wonderful moments. I loved the time spent with fellow elders. I got to serve with some spiritual giants, you know. Men who won’t go down in history. Humble men, filled with kindness and compassion. Just to be around them was truly a blessing.

But it wasn’t all fun?

Well, there were some sad moments. I attended and even preached some really tough funerals. Especially the young people. Burying a child — you just never forget that level of pain — especially when the parents aren’t sure that their son or daughter was saved. Tough, tough funerals.

On the whole, though, was it worth it all?

I’m not sure I’m allowed to make that judgment. The Bible says that if you have the gift of leadership, you should lead. I never felt qualified, you know. Not really. The job is far too big, far too hard for anyone — me especially included. But my fellow elders urged me to stay in it, wouldn’t let me retire. And so I served.

Was it worth it all? Well, that’s up to God. I guess he decides who is gifted for the work, and that’s pretty much it. Right?

Looking back on your career, what is your greatest joy?

The baptisms. The restorations. Seeing people changed. Seeing worldly, secular people becoming like Jesus.

What’s your greatest disappointment.

You know.

Can you say it?

This congregation isn’t going last two years after my death. For all practical purposes, it’s dead right now. There are no babies. No young families. The biggest givers are all about my age, and we aren’t long for this world.

It’s not that the church is all about me, understand. It’s that the church is all about my generation. And my generation will all be gone to our reward in two or three years. The giving will stop. And the few members that are left will sell the building.


It’s a great church building. It’s too big for us, nowadays, of course, but it’ll serve someone else very well. It’s in a neighborhood filled with young families. Some church plant that knows how to reach young folk will buy it, and they’ll take off like a rocket.

And the money will be given to a bunch of traditionalist Church of Christ charities, probably $1,000 at a time, and won’t do much good for much of anybody.

And my lifetime of work will be gone.

But if there’s so much potential in that place, why did your church die?

Natural causes … natural causes.

I mean, we did what people naturally do. We thought we were being Christian, but we were being selfish.

Let me explain.

We never had a fight. We never had much of a disagreement of any kind. We just kind of decided early on that we wanted to be a “moderate” Church of Christ. You know, we couldn’t bear to be the really hateful legalist sort of church. We didn’t want to talk bad about other Churches of Christ. We didn’t want to go to war over every little piddling thing.

But then, we stayed away from anything that might be controversial. No clapping. No lifting “holy hands.” We taught some really great classes on grace and the Spirit. But we conducted church like a 1960s Church of Christ.

We never, ever gave offense. Never let women get up and speak. Never allowed instruments. Only let the Freed-Hardeman chorus sing after the closing prayer. All very traditional.

And the members loved it. Loved it. All around churches were going through turmoil — either being hateful or going “liberal.” And we stayed a middle course.

Never had a fight. Never had a quarrel.

And then one day, we looked around and noticed that we had no one in church in their twenties. And then, a few years later, the youngest members were in their forties.

People transferred to new jobs. People moved to other parts of town. And when those delightful young couples came to visit, we were friendly and took them to lunch, but they never stayed. Not for long.

But our older members loved church exactly the way we did church. They loved getting to sing the old hymns. They loved the hymn books. They loved the pews. They loved the preaching. They were delighted — until they realized that it was just them left.

You keep saying that you never had a fight, but there must have been some disagreements? Surely someone wanted to try a different approach.

Well, if I had one thing to do over again, it would have been to have had fight or two.

You see, we were so afraid of conflict, the elders wouldn’t even listen to the other side. We wanted to be a moderate, middle-of-the-road church, and the issue wasn’t open for discussion.

We knew that if ever opened up for discussion, well, it would quickly get ugly. We had members who’d cut their contributions. We had members who’d leave. I mean, we loved each other, but we loved our way of doing things more than we loved the lost. We loved the old members more than the young couples who’d visit.

I mean, the couples were welcome, but they were welcome to fit in to what we wanted. We weren’t about to change.

Why be “moderate”? What was theory?

Well, we knew the traditional doctrine was wrong. We just couldn’t teach a works-salvation. We knew we had to have freedom to teach grace.

But most of members really enjoyed an old-style worship service. In fact, for a while, we attracted a few members from some more progressive churches who preferred our style of service. We figured we were providing a good, sound alternative for those wanting a better doctrine without having to give up traditional worship.

And it worked — for  a while.

What was the first sign that things weren’t going to work long-term?

Well, when our own children started attending other churches in town. I mean, most preferred some local church plant or community church to the church they grew up in. And we learned — too late to matter — that if we can’t keep our own kids, we can’t keep anyone young.

Every once in a while, a family would move in and we’d think things were going to change — that we wouldn’t have to change. And then they’d slip away.

And then it was too late to change.

Is there a solution?

Sure. What we ought to do is invite a church planting team from somewhere to come join us, turn the control over to them, and just volunteer our hearts out to help them. That way, at least the next church in the building would be one of our own, you know.

Will you do it?

I would. But I can’t get the votes. It would be like admitting defeat to most of the members. I see it as rescuing victory from the jaws of defeat — finally having the courage to do the right thing. But after decades of avoiding hard decisions, the members aren’t about to make a sacrifice like that.

And so?

And so I’ve been deciding what realtor gets the listing on the building.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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14 Responses to The Pain of Disappointment, Part 12 (Pain)

  1. Mark says:

    This is not a one-off happening. I have a feeling this has happened plenty of times. Some churches just don’t have the “For Sale” sign up yet. As I have said before, some people will go to their graves having never changed. This is a great example of what can happen when you have self-perpetuating elderships.

  2. John says:

    The CoC in my hometown down south, through the 1980s, had an average attendance of 250 to 300 a Sunday, in a building that holds 500. Today they have less than 100. In all fairness, the town did start dying when the factories and businesses started moving out. It affected all churches. yet, I can see some of the problems listed in your post as part of their history. They couragiously stood their ground in the late sixties when the preacher, with the encouragement from other preachers in the county, tried to steer it in a non-cooporational (anti) direction. The minister that the elders brought in after him did a masterful job at healing wounds, but was blocked whenever he tried to move it in a more progressive nature. I remember when he brought in material for Vacation Bible School that had been written by Bobbie Lee Holley, published by Sweet. She later became the editor of Mission Journal. Some of the legalist would not have it. So, the elders, who loved the minister, caved; they did not want to see any, even if it was just a few, walking out. I can remember him, in safe situations, saying things like, “I think we have as a Church, meaning the CoC as a whole, reached out in the wrong way. we are too turned inward”. He has since passed on; they have his picture in the back of the auditorium (I like sanctuary) but I will stay traditional, while a handful of people meet for Sunday School each week and talk of the denominations.

  3. Skip says:

    This reminds me of a Methodist church in the DC area that had a huge building but the membership shrunk so much that they rented the church out to growing gay groups to make expenses. The gay groups used the main auditorium while the church used the little annex chapel. Several other Methodist groups in the area went out of business and sold their buildings. Are the Churches of Christ close behind?

  4. Mark says:

    If you go down into the South, you will see lots of Baptist churches that seat 250-300 with loads of Sunday school rooms. Now they are lucky to get 25 on a good Sunday. Meanwhile, some little country churches which did modernize have most of the young members.

  5. alegler says:

    The church we go to now is by far the friendliest and most open minded we’ve been too. They have two services. The older generation did not leave when “liberal” changes were made but most of them go to the early service. When we go to the early service, they introduce themselves and jokingly refer to the second service that has mostly the younger generation as the “other” church. They don’t get it. We need this older generation to invest in us, so we in turn know how to invest in the generation behind us.

  6. Alabama John says:

    The COC of the 40’s, 50’s. 60’s, will be gone in another 25 years or less.

    Or to put it more accurately taught, the COC mentioned in the Bible saluting, being continuously in existence from the beginning of Gods New Testament Church mentioned in the New Testament until the 60’s with a few still going until the middle 2000’s.

    So many of us have lived in fear of damnation and worried about every move or thought sending us to hell and the younger folks have a love for God we never have had.

    How many of us pray God will judge us on our obedience to the law we thought was right and forgive us for any wrong or harm we did while trying to do and teach what we believed was right.

  7. mark says:

    I am not sure I want to be judged on my obedience to the law that we thought was right. I am not sure just how right it was. I would be scared that I would be asked why I did not challenge some of the opinions on the law that others had made.

  8. Alabama John says:

    As we can see from the postings on this site, we don’t all agree with each other on every point and never will. We all are obeying as we understand to obey and with 27 different branches of the COC, we sure differ in understanding and obedience.

    That is why God will do the judging, not us.

    If we all must understand and obey perfectly, I could of written a n easier list of do’s and don’ts than those written in the Bible as we have it, teach it, and understand it. Every argument presented on this site and others has scriptures quoted that taken in the context presented PROVE that particular point.

    Maybe love God and your neighbor will be simple enough.

    It seems the more educated we become, the more confusing and complicated it has become to be obedient and in a sense, call all others that disagree with us either ignorantly mistaken or disobedient and hell bound..

  9. Monty says:

    Jay said,
    “Never let women get up and speak. Never allowed instruments. Only let the Freed-Hardeman chorus sing after the closing prayer. All very traditional”

    If that were the be-all-to-end-all change that needed to be made to insure real growth, then the Independent Christian Churches should be growing by leaps and bounds. However, they lost adherents the past 10 years. Outside of a few maga churches they are a greying “dying” group like the churches of Christ. We need to find some better answers. Just don’t think it’s rooted in how we “do” church.

  10. I agree with Monty’s statement. There are churches within a mile of our building where they have instrumental music and women preaching and people are NOT lined up around the block to get in the door. That is not IT.

    I am not sure what IT is, but I think it has something to do with love and sacrifice.

    Oh, and an excellent (non-)fiction conversation. What happened to the (non-)fictional congregation was the Elder’s fault and the fault of his fellow Elders. They led they way to nowhere.

  11. Larry Cheek says:

    Alabama John stated, “the younger folks have a love for God we never have had.” That is not exactly what I see in the younger ex church attendee’s that I encounter. It seems that they have had their fill of devoting any of their valuable time to any others, they have become self centered, you know there is sooo much that I want to experience of the good things in life, ball games that their kids must be involved in, oh the major leagues that many times people spend more of their income to see then they have contributed to the offering for the master, get together s with friends at the coffee shop etc; and those very exciting newest and latest movies that are so far outside reality. Blame our kids for this; well guess who they have imitated. Seems that their parents many times pursued the exact same goals while the kids were at home, but the parents were so sure that if they did not devote at least one or two hours on Sunday morning to “church” they would be condemned for eternity, so they sacrificed the time to pay the price. Of course they could not hide their attitude from their children and the children did not learn to love the Lord, they began to give him as much honor as they would give to the government in obeying rules. You know as long as you stayed fairly close to the speed limit, or just blended in with the rest of the speeders you would be safe. Then it is a very short step to allow grace to cover all the imperfections. A good God surely would not condemn me for these few deviations after all look how much better I am than John Doe over there. I know our government is not in the same corner of the world as Christians are but neither was Rome? I guess that kind of places us in the same situation as the early church, the world and our children have to see the sacrifice and commitment of the believers to see value.

  12. Alabama John says:

    I do not see it in the EX Church attendees either.
    What I see is a love for Jesus and God in the younger ones that do attend instead of a far more love for scripture found in us older folks.
    In us older members, we sing far more love for God than we preach or teach.

  13. Mark says:

    The younger ones also want to hear about Jesus, not Paul. Someone on one blog said that the cofC teaches constantly but is still shrinking. Why do we still proof-text from Paul’s letters in every sermon? and keep on about Paul? Why does there seem to be no relating of Jesus to real life situations?

    Larry Cheek said “they began to give him as much honor as they would give to the government in obeying rules.” When sermons were all about rules and what you had to do and then even more about what you could not do, the legalism reigned. Then, the few sermons that weren’t on those topics were about Paul’s missionary journeys. These were all the topics I ever heard from the pulpit growing up cofC. No happiness. No grace. No resurrection on Easter. No Christmas. It’s no wonders that people don’t want to go to church and thus don’t take the children.

  14. Charles McLean says:

    I would “amen” the idea that this group should have “had a fight or two”. Our fear of conflict generally reflects our unspoken recognition of the shallowness of our relationships. Ma and Pa who have been married thirty years can butt heads over things they feel strongly about, specifically because they know that neither one of them is leaving. They can surface conflict and work through it and come out the healthier for the experience.

    But in fact, the idea that “we never had a quarrel” is not really an accurate one. We had it, alright… we just had it in our own minds. Or, we only expressed it to those on our side of the conflict, never to anyone on the other side of the fence. Instead, we surrendered to the status quo, thinking that this resolved something. But in truth, all we did was to paint over the cracks in the metal until the “tie that binds” broke. We did all this quietly and peacably, so we think it never really happened. We did not split the blanket, we just let it unravel.

    At this point, we look at empty pews and blame local economics (while the community church across the street is thriving) or blame general spiritual lassitude (while hundreds showed up at a pro-life rally on the square last month) or we express a general disappointment in the level of piety in “young people”, because they no longer want to observe the practices and traditions we have been observing quite happily for 50 years. We fail to heed the words of the immortal Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is US.”

    But the news need not be all bad. If we could just find it in ourselves to set aside the erroneous idea that any particular congregation should have an indefinite lifespan, our current state need not be seen so darkly. Who told us that the congregation at 1st and Elm should go on forever? The Body of Christ continues, but if we humble ourselves just a bit, we can close a congregation like we closed our beloved Ed’s Hardware after Ed retired. We can admit that it has served its purpose, and let it transition with some dignity, and even some rejoicing in remembering its contributions to our community. We can give (not sell, but GIVE) the buildings to a living, growing group of believers who need it as we once did, freeing them from the bondage of mortgage and letting them spend their money on doing the work to which we are called. The departing members can bring the wisdom and gifts they retain to other area fellowships and put their seed in the ground instead of letting it rot away in the barn.

    Instead, we do nothing year after year beyond holding services separate and apart from our brothers and sisters across town, led not by the Spirit but by inertia. In so doing, we are worse than the one-talent man in the parable, who at least was able to return his master’s capital to him. Having lost the capacity or the willingness to grow anything, we slowly eat the investment God has made in us –human and financial– as long as we can still chew, nibbling away at it service after weekly service. If we live long enough, only the husk remains. Not even a funeral, a joyous celebration of a life well spent. Rather, just a sheriff’s sale and a parceling of the proceeds according to the regulations governing non-profit 501c(3)corporations.

    What a sad and ignominious end to that which was once called a “church”… and it is the end the members themselves chose, and for which they are wholly and entirely responsible.

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