I have been working a lot with churches over the past few years. One of the things that is interesting about working with mainline churches is that they are a little ahead of the curve in terms of the change of social institutions. What they are experiencing now is similar to what we might experience in the next decade or so with other social institutions like education and health, the non-profit sector and the way we organize community. There is a massive shift underway.
Thom Rainer gives a list of 11 ways you can tell a church is dying – and this would apply to many other kinds of organizations too. The questions becomes, not how do we save it, but what is the next shape?
1. The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.
2. The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.
3. Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.
4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.
5. There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.
6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.
7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.
8. The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.
9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.
10. The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
11. The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”