A Hospice for Dead Churches

deadchurchPart 1

Ed Stetzer is an expert on church growth and a consultant to the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m a fan.

He recently wrote a blog post called “Creating a Hospice Ministry for Churches.” I thought it was about churches providing hospice care for dying people — not a bad idea. But it’s really about hospice care for dying churches.

Thousands of Churches of Christ close their doors every decade. Sometimes the building is sold and the members pocket the money. Really. Sometimes the building is abandoned. Sometimes the members give up and quit church altogether. Sometimes they find another congregation to join. Rarely does a church die well.

I think churches should die well rather than live poorly. As a Star Trek nerd, I remember the Klingons would dream of dying in battle—dying well. I think the dream of a church should be to die and let the battle continue through the resources they have the their support for other churches.

The Klingon reference is where he got me. Klingons, an honor culture, enter battle proclaiming, “Today is a good day to die!” There are more important things than an individual’s (or a congregation’s) life.

What’s more important than keeping my church alive? Well, keeping its members spiritually healthy and preserving the value created by generations of givers and workers for God’s work. Don’t let the church rot into nothingness.

It is difficult for a church to die and at the same time release its resources to another group to continue the mission. After all, the new church may play different style worship music in our building. What if they don’t have Sunday School? Can we give our building to a new church that may remove the pews? Yes, these are crucial questions for some.

I know of a case where a church planting team met with the local churches to advise them that they were in town and planning to start a new church. Well, there was actually only one church left in town, and they were already about to talk to a realtor about selling the building and shutting the congregation down.

The older congregation begged the church planters to join them and revitalize the old church. The planters declared that they felt led to plant a different kind of church. More casual. Less restrictive regarding women. More … instrumental. Different.

The plant team politely declined the offer, but asked that all spend time in a season of prayer. Soon, the older church approached the planters with this proposal.

“It seems that God sent you here at just the right time. We were a day away from signing a real estate listing. And if it’s from God, who are we to resist? So what if we gave you the keys? It’ll be your building, your pews, your everything.

“We figure there won’t be any church in town that’s exactly like what we’d prefer. And we’d rather be uncomfortable here and with you than anywhere else. And so we’d like to join this new church you’re planting. And help. If we may?”

And I understand that the new/old church is doing quite well. After all, they made the most important change of all. They gave it over to God.

At the end of the day, leaders of denominations or networks must be able to help churches get through this process.

Obviously, in the Churches of Christ there is no denominational structure to handle such things. There are some excellent church planting organizations that might be persuaded to send a team to a community that needs a congregation with a fresh start.

Stetzer points out several signs that death may be imminent —

* No one will lead.

* Those remain do so out of duty to family or tradition.

* The plan is just to hang on as long as we can.

* There’s no passion for worship.

I would add —

* There are no children.

* There are no new members.

What to do? As I mentioned above, Stetzer suggests inviting a church plant in and giving them the keys.

Another option is to merge with a more vital congregation.

Another option is to find a small, struggling church and offer them a building and some volunteers.

In some towns, a struggling church merges with a multi-site congregation, offering its facilities as a new site under the leadership of the larger church. Many congregations have been revitalized by surrendering their independence to join with a large church with the vision and talent to grow.

Finally, I’ve seen some near-death churches resuscitated when a congregation retained a new preacher and gave him the freedom to preach grace and to teach the church a better way to be Christ’s church.

Part 2

After I wrote this post, I came across a post on the same theme by Dan Bouchelle (one of my favorite bloggers). Dan suggests that perhaps older churches should accept that they are older and minister as older churches.

When I was younger, I believed that any church could become anything if they were willing to make the necessary changes. I pushed for some changes in the churches I served which they could only partially embody and generated much resistance, often with little benefit. I thought the disoriented older folks just needed to accept the changes in our culture and what it would take to reach those unlike us even when that meant going to a church that no longer met their needs. Too often, we sacrificed good people for no gain.

I now see this was partly selfish and naive. There were other options. While all churches must adapt to their surrounding culture in appropriate ways, not all can do it well and still care for the people they have. Should they sacrifice many of their current members for people they may never reach? Is that loving? Is it Christ-like? Is it our only option for fulfilling our mission? Sometimes perhaps, but is there another way?

I’m 60, and I find this concept very difficult. Yes, I observe what Dan observes — that it’s hard for old churches to learn new tricks. People fight, get angry, and leave over the most trivial changes. So do we plant new churches and let the old churches be old churches?

3. Mature churches who aren’t reproducing life can and should invest in new churches who can. This is like being grandparents who invest in their grandkids. The role is huge. But, like good grandparents, these churches should not expect their grandchildren to think like them or do things just like them. The mission is more disciples and an enduring kingdom, not the perpetuation of any given congregation.

4. We need multiple kinds of churches who know who they are and plan their work accordingly . We need mature churches that can minister to and facilitate the ministry of people who have been Christians a long time. We need fresh churches that can adapt quickly and minister to and facilitate the ministry of people of diverse backgrounds who are just now becoming followers of Jesus. Both kinds of churches will have strengths and challenges unique to their stage of life. They need each other like people of different generations in a large family.

I just don’t buy it. Yes, there will always be old and new churches, but it’s not obvious to me why older, established churches cannot also be churches that “adapt quickly and minister to and facilitate the ministry of people of diverse backgrounds who are just now becoming followers of Jesus.” I don’t see why older churches should expect to think differently from new churches.

Don’t the young need the experience and wisdom of the old? Don’t the old need the energy and audacity of the young? How are we better apart?

A new church is created by a planting team. The vision of the church is the vision of the team. New people join, and as they join, they buy into the existing vision. This vision is one of growth and outreach and experimentation. It’s a vision carefully built on solid theology and praxis. It’s about being the kingdom. The consensus around a single, healthy vision drives growth.

An older church has its own vision, but it’s often a vision inherited from prior generations. It may be a vision to teach a certain kind of “sound doctrine” or to care for the older generation that founded the church and invested their lives into the church. But if it’s not a kingdom vision, it’s a bad vision. It’s sin.

Yes, there is a very natural tendency of older churches to cater to the desires of the older members — from whom elders are selected and who are the big givers. And this is … sin. Unless the older members have a kingdom vision.

A lifetime of service and giving entitles a Christian to … nothing. NOTHING. I mean, who did we do this for? Ourselves or Jesus? Whose church is it? Ours or Jesus’s? Who gets to make the tough calls — the older members (like me), the younger members (like my children), or Jesus? And until we give it all up to Jesus, we’re in God’s way.

No, it’s not okay for the older church to send money to young, energetic church planters while they pursue a self-indulgent vision in their own church isolated and insulated from a sick and hurting world. You cannot farm your Christianity out to others.

You see, the very essence of Christianity is becoming like Jesus in his service,  submission, sacrifice and suffering. Miss that and you miss everything. And if the older generation hasn’t learned that, then shame on their elders and Bible class teachers and the editors of the literature they read at home. But that excuses nothing.

The solution is not to surrender to a self-centered church culture and hope someone plants a real church nearby. The solution is to submit to Jesus, follow him to the cross, and so become a disciple.

Then young people will then see old people (like me) acting like Jesus, modeling Christian behaviors. And all the resources that church has will be used for kingdom purposes, not just the surplus that happens to pour over to a church plant.

Sorry for the rant. I am Dan Bouchelle’s biggest fan. Love his blog and his heart. But I am persuaded that old churches can act like well-staffed, well-equipped church plants. It’s just a question of will — 0f submission to the Spirit. And I don’t think we do the old members of old churches (like me) any favors by indulging them.

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.
This entry was posted in Churches of Christ in Decline, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to A Hospice for Dead Churches

  1. Joe Baggett says:

    This is good medicine. In Texas 15 congregations closed their doors last year some 16 the year before. It is a pretty steady trend. The one that I preached at some 17 years ago in Bartlett is one of them. I wish I would have had this info then. Because they finally sold the building to a Charismatic group that is mostly Hispanic. But if fir all the criteria you described for a dying church. I remember performing my first funeral ceremony there.
    So the reason that I say this is important for the churches of Christ is because so many churches fit the profile that Stetzer describes. Maybe this is a new ministry opportunity?

  2. You may be right. Probably are. But you are talking about what should be and I’m talking about what is. I have less hope that most churches will be willing to pay the price you describe regardless of what they should do. Perhaps I don’t have enough faith or vision. I know that I haven’t been able to lead churches to embrace that kind of vision you are casting here deeply enough to risk losing many of their core members. However, I do think that most churches can and should be planting new churches while seeking to be as faithful as possible to reach people in their existing form. Its a fall back position from what I once advocated and I don’t feel as good about that as I would like. I certainly don’t know the best ways to move forward. I just want to see churches invest in what can survive and thrive even when they cannot do so as they currently exist. I’m thinking church planting is one way to do that. Note that I did not use the language of church hospice. I’m just wanting churches to notice that new churches grow fastest and make that work for us rather than spend all our energy and resources trying to revive institutions that are not willing to do what it takes to survive with some kind of magical thinking. Jay, I hope that people who read this blog will be inspired to do as you suggest. For those that won’t, I hope they will consider what I suggest. Blessing. I deeply appreciate your ministry. I hope we can meet one day in person.

  3. brent says:

    As you probably know, there are many Churches of Christ in Nashville that have already closed down and more on the verge. Several years ago the church that I worked for, with a multi-site vision, tried to adopt one of the small, dying congregations. The church had around 30 members, mostly in their 70’s. The 2 elders were in their 80’s with failing health. We developed a relationship with this church and began running a thriving benevolence program out of their building on Saturdays. It was a good arrangement. But when it came down to it, they were just not willing to give up their control and identity, and the relationship was eventually dissolved. Sadly, sometimes it seems it’s just easier to start fresh and let the older congregations run their course.

  4. Dwight says:

    We often associate a church or those who assemble with the church. While the church or assembly in a certain place may indeed not meet and sell thier earthly possesions this doesn’t mean that the congregation has neccessarily been affected. Many of those people will go elsewhere and maybe meet under the radar in smaller venues, but the congregation of the Lord continues. In the above Stetzer is describing an assembly that is dying as if it was a stable life, but in the NT assemblies were in flux as well from place to place as they met in homes, but when they couldn’t they met in other places. They were dynamic.
    Many “dead” churches are not dynamic, but then again many “live” churches aren’t either as they grow by new people moving in and take the people that would have gone to the other assembly and would have created changes within it. The small unpopular assemblies get smaller while the larger assemblies get larger. People often move to where they feel good and can blend in and don’t think of the good they can do with smaller groups that need help.

  5. I know a congregation formed by a merger of a mainline Church of Christ and an International Church of Christ congregation. It is thriving because the leadership has a great vision for how both elements of their group is to love each other. Though the merger occurred quite a few years ago, the church still has the energy and vision of youth as well as the stability and wisdom of the gray heads. I love being there when my work takes me into their assembly. Unfortunately, such congregations are few and far between.

  6. Dwight says:

    The problem I have with the IOCoC from what I understand is that there is a heiarchy above the elders that governs the churches collectively. This may or may not be so, but this was part of its inception from the Crossroads movement from which it sprang.

  7. Mark says:

    It takes some very strong people to admit that a congregation is about out of business. It also takes a lot of nerve to stand up to one or two people who are determined that as long as one of them is alive, that congregation will remain open. It is sad that older people often do not want to turn over any control to the younger generations out of fear that they won’t maintain everything that the older generation has and in the way they want. For those who can, it is an admirable, Christ-like way of doing things.

  8. The valid thought here is that believers should do more with their time and assets than simply hold weekly services. I would agree. But how many clubs do we see who manage to keep paying their bills and hold services and do little else in their community? Clubs whose raison d’etre is keeping the doors open so they don’t have to go to church with those “other people”. Are we suggesting to these clubs that they shut down as well? Or do only the clubs whose members are all elderly deserve this solicitude of ours?

    It’s a human religion club, not unlike its larger and more active cousins. Its remaining owners decide that all they really want is to continue to have a weekly club meeting, and logically, it is the last thing they will give up. Why is anyone else concerned– other than about the fact that this point in their history points out a dubious priority that every such club has, no matter how large or lively? These are not folks who are active in evangelism or other pursuits which require the support of an active congregation. They want, more than anything, to continue to own and operate their own club as long as they can. Almost all of these folks have had years to change this course, and have chosen not to do so. In this case, I say, who are we to insist they are doing wrong? If they are, they can answer for the use of their talent to One greater than I.

  9. Joe Baggett says:

    Wow Mark just said a mouthful! Jay I think this may be the underlying issue to some of what you are saying.

  10. Eric says:

    Great post! I wish more people could leave their preferences in the place where they belong. We can go to a restaurant we don’t like to be with someone we do, but we can put up with little differences of tast in worship or whatever else we cling to. We’ll even make salvation issues out of the smallest things. I hope this type of thinking can grow and strengthen the whole body of Christ. Many do this very well though other would tear them down out of envy and selfishness. We need to seek reasons to stay together and work together. We need all the churches working together to do what we’ve been tasked with. When leadership goes against there own preferences to reach others for Christ we all win.

  11. Alabama John says:

    We are fixing to have another war.
    Each time, more people ease up on the stricter rules and beliefs and worship God more together.
    WE all may be in for a big change in thinking and action among the church of Christ people.
    War and hard times put more on their knees than anything else and that brings them together since little differences disappear.

  12. Dwight says:

    I attend a large “conservative” congreagation that is growing and go preach at a much smaller “institutional” congregation about once a month. Many in our congregation believe they should shut down thier doors, but they still keep going, with lackluster people. The real problem though is that there is no growth there, spiritually or physically and we don’t support thier growth. The irony is that many believe they should come worship with us, but they won’t go worship with them simply because everyonce in awhile they have a pot luck dinner on the property, even if it is not in the main building. They cannot really support themsleves and we will not support them either and that is sad as they are saints too. But they are very low on support in that many of their own members that come there do so very sparingly and don’t do much of anything and then most of the money goes into the building. It is sad from very many angles.

  13. Dwight says:

    Alabam John, Yes, the ISIS threat if it comes to America might be the best thing for all Christians in bringing us together.

  14. Mark says:

    Perhaps those who go to the pulpit should remind people about the faith of the martyrs. Also, martyrdom still occurs. That’s something almost never discussed.

  15. Jay Guin says:

    Matt, Mark, and Joe,

    Tomorrow begins a series on the power and significance of story. Already written, still being edited. (And I couldn’t agree more with both Mark and Matt.)

  16. Royce says:

    I have personal knowledge of two congregations that were dying and each appealed to successful congregations to take them and their assets and do what they could to make it work. Both are very successful with attendance increasing, baptisms increasing, and in general making a much greater impact for the cause of Christ in their communities. As someone mentioned, a certain amount of humility is required for those failing churches to ask for help. I commend them for wanting to honor Jesus above all else.

  17. Aaron says:

    Old churches should sell their possessions and give to the poor, not squander it on more buildings and programs. That’s kingdom work.

  18. laymond says:

    Someone said ; ” I commend them for wanting to honor Jesus above all else.”

    What was it Jesus said ? I believe it was” Love God, and your neighbor .

  19. Dwight says:

    Amen Aaron, Amen. We forget that it is the people that are the congregation and not the physical structures. We should grow people. They did a lot with very little in the day of Jesus and we often think we must have more then they did. Small assemblies fail because they fail the people and fail to promote Christ through thier living and giving and talking to others and they think that thier Christianity and service to God starts and stops at the door steps of the building. We are very self limiting.

  20. I think so much of Aaron’s suggestion, I think it should perhaps apply to the rest of churches as well, rather than just the ones we don’t attend….

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