The weekend finds me nestled in a friend’s home in Goodyear, Arizona. April has graciously allowed some time away to study and write my dissertation proposal that I’ll submit in the next few weeks. I’m tired after a fruitful season of ministry in 2022 and a joyous Easter. But I’m excited to be surrounded by my books and articles. The sheer smell of the pages enlivens the mind. How I miss uninterrupted hours just to read. And think. And write.
I came across one proposal (I’m reading a bunch of old ones to make sure my apples don’t fall to far from the tree) that syphoned off some wisdom from Thom Rainer. Every preacher knows Thom and his great work largely targeted to ‘normal’ pastors (200 members or less). And if they don’t they should. He wrote a book some years ago entitled, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Thom said there’s essentially 4 factors that proved significant in the closing of most churches. As I read through these I thought about the churches I’ve witnessed fail. And how I truly will pray for Southwest Church, where April and I are stationed, that we will watch out for these red flags:
- “The Past Is the Hero.” Necessity is the mother of invention they say. And sometimes we hold on to inventions that were great for the generation in which they were innovated but may not be so great for the generation we are in now. The old church used to say, “Be anchored to the rock but geared to the times.” Jesus Himself warned us about new wine in old wineskins. A reluctance to change is often an acceptance of decline. What happens here is that a congregation’s memory of the past becomes an idol that they’re unwilling to move away from or even consider new ways of doing things in order to achieve the same purpose. We can’t forget the past. Because if we do we’ll never understand where we’re going. But what got us ‘here’ doesn’t necessarily get us ‘there.’
- “The Church Refused to Look Like the Community.” The Christian movement was sparked by empathy. Ours is a tradition of peasants who crossed their racial, socioeconomic, and political barriers to follow a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. We were nutzoid’s by definition in the Roman Empire in our first few decades of existence. But empathy and love put the Romans on alert that there was a new way to do life — the Gospel. Saying all that to say, this empathy drew EVERYONE to the fold of Christ. Not just people who looked like ‘we looked.’ Given the cultural moment, now more than ever the local church ought to care deeply about the problems real people in the real community have and show the empathy and love of Jesus. I pray Southwest will continue to increasingly reflect the Valley she’s nestled in.
- “The Church rarely prayed together.” Late last year our church called a Sunday night prayer meeting. I’m not sure there were even 70 of us. But it remains the best night of the year. We prayed. And wept. And encouraged one another. And that was it. Sadly we’ve not done nearly enough of that. Prayer is THE essential rhythm of the corporate worship experience. And it is often neglected in today’s evangelical circles. And when there is no prayer, no wonder there is not much power either. The fires just dwindle.
- “The Budget Moved Inwardly.” This one is hard for me to hear. But it’s true nonetheless. As churches go through hard seasons resources, that are already low, tend to be directed to the pain points as opposed to the gospel points. Sure those lines can sometimes by blurred. But often the discussion is lacking meaning there’s an assumption that it’s okay to direct all of God’s money towards ‘us’ instead of towards ‘them.’
Thanks Thom for the continued good word. And thanks Southwest for being a church that has carefully withstood these temptations. May we only thrive all the more as the future wears on.