By Scott Catoe, Guest Author
[A variation of this article originally appeared on The Pillar Network.]
Of all the things we have euphemisms for, death is at the top of the list. “Passed,” “passed away,” “moved on,” and many others, serve as sanitized phrases to convey what we are truly talking about here:
Likewise, when we speak of dying churches, we often sanitize our language in much the same way: “we’ve had better days,” “we’re in decline,” or maybe even such well-intentioned statements as “our vision just isn’t clear” all serve much the same purposes. We just don’t like to talk about churches dying.
Yet, no topic could be more relevant to the state of our contemporary church. Most churches in the South and especially in the rural south, are currently in a state of decline. For most of them, the signs of that slow death were starting long before anyone noticed. What are these signs? How can a church tell if it is in decline, aside from the obvious lack of attendance or decline in giving?
In what follows, I hope to offer 5 signs that can help a church identify if it is headed for death. The intention is not to kick a church while it’s down; it is, rather, to help others see some signs that things are seriously wrong. What are some subtle signs of a dying church?
1. Few people know what they are doing – many in the congregation couldn’t tell you why church matters, what the church does, or why their particular gifting or role is significant. Ultimately, this is the long-term result of one major deficiency in the life of the church: a lack of discipleship. In fact, it is not uncommon in my area to talk to others in church life, including pastors, who will say “I know discipleship is important, but I’ve never done it. In fact, I don’t know for sure that I’ve been discipled myself.” This leads to a litany of problems, all of which will lead to the ultimate erosion of the church.
2. Few people know why they are doing it – purpose. The church exists for the Gospel. The church’s purpose is the propagation and proclamation of the Gospel, in the lives of individuals, communities, and around the world (Matthew 28:20). If a church, or a ministry for that matter, loses sight of the fact that it’s primary purpose is centered on the Gospel, death is imminent. Purpose is critical in the life of any organization, but for the church, it isn’t just any purpose: it’s the purpose of the Gospel.
3. Few people in the church reflect the community around it – the sense of purpose is, to some degree, reflected by the demographics of the church. A simple question, but a helpful one to ask is: does the church look like the community? Does the ethnic and cultural demographic match the community? If not, it is highly likely that the church is headed for precipitous decline and, ultimately, death.
4. More people look backward than forward – it sounds so well intentioned. “We want to restore this church to its glory days.” We package that in many different ways, but most often it is some nostalgic memory that, quite often, has been embellished, albeit unintentionally, over time. Nostalgia in a church that needs revitalization can be a strong ally or a powerful enemy. The church that looks at its past and longs for the day when it looks just like it did 50 years ago is often headed down a painful path.
5. Hope is hard to find – I saved this one for last. The lack of discipleship in the church leads to a lack of understanding about the content and priority of the Gospel. The lack of Gospel focus leads to lack of Gospel fruit. The lack of Gospel fruit leads to lack of hope. Hopelessness is an impending reality for the church that is in decline. These churches, in many cases, feel there is no hope for them, that they are destined for death. Some may be open and frank about this hopelessness, but it is almost certainly palpable, if not on Sunday morning then in vision meetings or calendar planning or budget meetings. Any church that wrestles with feeling as though there is little hope for its survival has, quite simply, accelerated the process of its own demise.
I want end on a hopeful note. These signs are all reversible. The Gospel is sufficient. Christ loves His church. I have had the blessed experience to watch God take a faithful group of men and women who love a church and snatch it from the jaws of death to become one of the most vibrant churches in its community. Signs of death are signs, not promises. We serve a Christ who beat death, and that victory can, and often does, empower churches to be raised from death or near-death by the power of the Gospel. May we be people who are willing, however, to take a hard look at ourselves and the churches we love and evaluate their condition with honesty and clarity.
*Scott Catoe pastors Slater Baptist Church in Slater, South Carolina.