Disappearing churches
It's sad when a church just slowly fades away. (Flickr )

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"This train got the disappearing railroad blues."  —Arlo Guthrie, City of New Orleans

The cleaners I used for over two decades has made a decision to go out of business, and has begun doing so very slowly.

They just don't know it.

It started with a closed sign on the door one morning. I walked away carrying the clothes I had planned to drop off.

The next day, a sign announced they had relocated the business. Since the new site was closer to my house with more convenient parking, that did not make me unhappy.

Next, they began cutting back on the hours. The young man newly hired to run it informed me they were now opening at 11 am and closing at 7. No longer would people be able to drop off clothes on their way to work.

I said to him, "Shouldn't you have a sign outside with the hours of operation? Since this is a big change." Why I should care is another question, but I do.

The clerk casually assured me that the small notice on the glass door would suffice.

He was wrong. To read, that customer would have to leave the car and walk to the door. This is an ideal recipe for frustrating one's customers, and thus for losing them.

I never see a car in front of the store indicating a customer inside.

And now, I'm gone too.

Two weeks ago, I sold my house and moved 200 miles north. Every business suffers from attrition and must constantly be finding new customers to replace those moving away, dying or such. A business that is not attracting new customers will soon be history.

I suspect the next time I visit the New Orleans area, this business will be closed. The management is making all the right decisions to make that happen.

We've all seen restaurants and stores do the same thing, make wrong-headed decisions guaranteed to put themselves out of business.

Saddest of all is when churches get the disappearing blues.

Now, no church decides to go out of business. (Well, OK, that does happen for various reasons, but it's rare.)

Some churches, however, seem to have a death wish. Their leaders make bone-headed, self-centered decisions out of frustration, impatience, laziness, anger, fatigue or misguided convictions that drive people away and deaden the enthusiasm of those making the effort to come.

Churches that die may each disappear in their own way. To my knowledge, there is no definitive list of the things to look for. One may be put out of business by a brutal fight causing everyone to scatter, while another just caught a terminal case of complacency. One church I know ran up such heavy debt from a lawsuit they had to ask another church to absorb them.

From my observation, here are steps churches take that nullify their witness and shut down their outreach and end their usefulness in the community.

  • They run preachers off, one after another. After a business meeting in which the congregation voted to fire the minister, a senior member told me, "This is the fifth pastor in a row we have fired." A generation ago, that church ran 600 in attendance; today, it struggles to hit 50.
  • They keep the ministers on starvation wages, guaranteeing that they will not stay long at this church. Carnal members will argue that ministers should not be preaching "for the money," but God's Word says one must look after the needs of his family. If a church is not paying a living wage, it should not be surprising when the minister has to take outside jobs.
  • When a financial crisis hits, instead of calling the congregation to rally—to awaken to their situation, increase their giving, and be more committed—the leaders simply cut salaries and missions. Cutting the budget is far easier than asking people to sacrifice.
  • In a time of financial need, they cancel the publicity. No more newspaper ads, nothing on the radio, no flyers to hand out in the community. For a while they continue having wonderful programs, but few beyond the immediate congregation know it.
  • They spend the bulk of their income on themselves, neglecting their ministry to missions and the local community. Listen to leaders and you'll hear, "I don't know why we have this ministry anyway; none of those people come to our church."  The saying that "a church exists by missions the way a fire exists by burning" is true. Cut out the fire and everything dies.
  • They neglect the signs telling the community how to find their church. They allow them to rust, become damaged and grow unattractive. Rusted and unmaintained signs reflect poorly on the Lord's church. They do send a message, but not the one you would want. In one church I went to serve, my first order of business was to instruct the maintenance man to drive out to the various entrances to the city and take down those ugly, defaced signs with our name on them.
  • They will not allow the minister to speak prophetically or strongly to their sins. I once told a congregation, "I would not join this church. There is so much ill will and anger among our people. God is not going to let us experience revival until we get our hearts right with Him." To their credit, they took that and repented. God sent revival to that church and it became healthy and strong.
  • They allow a few carnal members to dominate the congregation. This has the result of running off healthy Christians who want the church to have a wide range of ministries and to do something different from what they've always done.
  • They lose their emphasis on love, fellowship, prayer, Scripture and missions, and become occupied with going to meetings and managing their property and guarding against new thoughts.

How does this decision line up with the Great Commission?

The church's mandate at the end of the Gospel of Matthew is still in effect. We are to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. And since this is the Lord's church and not ours—see Matthew 16:18—we should be asking Him what He wants done with His church.

Congregations and pastors sometimes make decisions and policies to suit themselves, to placate some disgruntled member, to make life easier on the workers. There is one group of people they never consult, the people in their community they were sent to serve and reach.

Churches may schedule the times of their worship services to suit their members but with no thought to their target audience.

They refuse to allow any musical instrument in the church other than a piano and organ because a few members would be upset. They sing the same songs their grandparents did, and call it being faithful to their calling. It's not. It's being afraid of their calling (to obey the Spirit, to minister to that community with the gospel of Jesus Christ).

Churches often make key decisions out of fear rather than faith. In Mark 4:40, our Lord asked, "Why did you fear? Where is your faith?"

I've seen churches erect massive iron columns with bars locked in place during the week to protect the property. I suppose people were parking in their lot and leaving beer cans or something. No one would like to have to clean up after such thoughtless visitors, but those iron bars send a message to motorists driving past that no church would ever want to convey:  "Stay away."

When a church refuses to post the times of their services prominently—"The people of this community know when we meet!"—they're signaling the community that they're not wanted.

I knew a church once that took down the basketball goals and nets from their outdoor playground because neighborhood teens were playing there and sometimes interfering with church activities. Such short-sightedness is truly amazing.

Some Churches Need to Go Out of Business

Let's just admit it. The unhealthy churches that keep running off good ministers, that burn up the Lord's money on their frills, that squabble and give Christians a bad name in that community, we will be better off when they are history.

But that's up to the Lord, not us.

Personally, I would not stay in a church that was running people off, that was in a constant fight, that did not respect the God-called ministers sent as "overseers" of the church (Acts 20:28). I would take my family and go where the Lord sends me, and shake off the dust of that contrary outfit.  I would never speak ill of them and would not badmouth them, but would pray for them. But I would not send them another dime of the Lord's tithe.

Where there are healthy churches trying to get this right, I want to join and help and contribute and work. Even these will have struggles aplenty, but if they are honoring Christ, I'm with them.

After five years as director of missions for the 100 Southern Baptist churches of metro New Orleans, Joe McKeever retired on June 1, 2009. These days, he has an office at the First Baptist Church of Kenner, where he's working on three books, and he's trying to accept every speaking/preaching invitation that comes his way.

For the original article, visit joemckeever.com.

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