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.
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.