4 Defibrillator Questions for a Dying Church

     If you’re reading, then you probably find yourself somehow connected to, what you believe is, a dying church. While I could give you the statistics on healthy, plateaued, and dying churches, that’s not what you’re looking for by reading this because you already feel the painful reality of those figures; in fact, you’re  probably living them. What you want is an answer to the practical question, “How can I turn all of this around?”
     You already know that there’s no silver bullet approach. You already know that one plants, one waters and God gives the increase. You know that you can’t do it alone instead you need a team to help you.  You see all of this, and probably so much more but what you desperately want to know is how to start the process?
     The real question is, “How do I get the dying church I’m in to see the seriousness of their condition and their need for change before it’s too late?  How can I get members to see that our church is sick and in need of a change?”
     First of all, and this has to be said otherwise someone will think I’m presenting a plug-and-play formula for the church, which I’m not. First of all, you need to pray. Desperately cry out to God for a clear path forward, for divinely appointed conversations in the hallway or meetings, for sermon texts and teaching opportunities.  Pray for opportunities to lovingly lead your people to see the reality of the situation. Pray wholeheartedly and desperately for God to move on those whom he sent his Son Jesus to die on a cross for. 
     But while you’re doing that, there is an action you can take.  There is something that you CAN do to shock the congregation to considering life and that something begins by merely asking them questions.  By asking them the four essential questions below, you’re attempting to LEAD your congregation to their OWN understanding that things have to change.  This is key:  Lead them to their own understanding that the situation has to change.  Here is when Jesus’ words to His disciples are especially applicable to us as pastors and leaders, “be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Your goal as the under-shepherd of God’s flock is to lovingly lead the people of God where he would have you to take them.  
      Please note that these questions must repeatedly be asked, in a variety of formats over an extended period before people begin to “get it” and are willing to embrace the reality that changes must happen. 
  1. Whose Church is This?
  2. What is God’s Mission For The Church?
  3. Are We Accomplishing His Mission Through Our Methods?
  4. If We’re Not Accomplishing His Mission through our Methods, What Are Our Options?
First Question:  Whose Church is This? 
     Over an extended period, church members begin to identify the church as the building instead of the people.  However, this is a satanic attack on a mental level to shift the church’s thinking from a living organism view to an exclusive organizational view of the church and render them ineffective and operating more like a country club instead of a body of Christ-followers.  This viewpoint is detrimental to the mission of the true church, the bride of Christ because people look at the weekly activities as obligations to fulfill instead of opportunities for faithfulness.  
     Church activities become stagnant. Methods become outdated. A lackluster enthusiasm passes from the church to the guests. Worship becomes a monotonous requirement that is devoid of joy and genuine praise.  Soon the weekly proceedings are dry and empty of any life.  Those that are frustrated with the arid climate of it all begin looking for the back door and those who are left behind cling to what’s always been because it’s what they know and they fear taking a risk because they don’t want to lose the people they have left. 
     For years, pastors and church leader go into these churches, work the stony ground, toil over the dry earth, and attempt to plant new vegetation. Unfortunately, change is often met with resistance because of fear of failure, and loss, or fear of the new/unknown.  In most churches, the mentality is it is better to walk with an increasingly infected limb than amputate (I talk about how to cut these programs here).
     But, pastor and church leader, there is a better way forward, and it begins with you asking the question, “Whose church is this?”
When you ask this question, you’re doing a few things:
  • You’re asking people to verbalize who is in charge.
     When people verbalize who is in charge, then the opportunity for a mover and shaker to work behind the scenes becomes a great deal more difficult. Those movers and shakers who are antagonistic toward the church transitioning forward and becoming an outwardly facing church will often work from behind the curtain to keep things “the way they’ve always been.”  These individuals may have the best motives, but often they fail to recognize the obvious signs that something is wrong with the current status quo and they believe “if people (those outside of the church) will return to the values of yesteryear, then our church will become what it was before, successful.”  They are of the mindset that we don’t need to change anything because when those people that left come back, we want them to feel right at home again.
     Without going too deep into that mentality, these “resistant to change” movers and shakers will drop hidden anchors (in conversations, on the phone, while fishing, in the hallways, over breakfast) among the church body to prevent the church from making the necessary next steps.  They do this by doubting the direction, remembering the good ole days thinking they will return, “worrying” about the money for the new program/initiative, or questioning if risking what they have is worth it.
     But by asking the question about who is in charge, your reprogramming people to remember that God is our leader, not someone who’s been here for 40-70 years.  It’s not our church; we’re his church and our God is able!  Then, and this part is essential, you need those movers and shakers to publicly agree and announce that they too believe that God is in charge of His church.  They may not, deep down, feel like it’s God’s church but most people will not say that flat out because to do so is blasphemy.
  • When you ask, “Whose church is this” you’re providing an opportunity to educate the congregation on what the Bible says about the Church.
     After people begin to acknowledge it is God’s church, you then get an opportunity to teach them, from a biblical standpoint what is right about the church. Take them to the book of Acts and share with them the beloved plan that God has for his church.  How God is fully invested in His people and desires to do great things with them and for them. 
     Remember this church is dying and you’re reminding them that God has a purpose for them.  That reality should encourage them.  
  • When you ask, “Whose church is this” you’re reminding people the God cares for His church and doesn’t desire for it to die.  
     I’ll never forget Henry Blackaby’s observation at a Church Revitalization Conference I attended a few months ago, “How can a floundering church bring glory to God?  It can’t.”  Blackaby understood that a spiraling church doesn’t bring glory to God because a spiraling church is heading for a crash and He doesn’t desire for His church to crash. By asking the question, “Whose church is this,”  your reminding the people that the author of all creation cares what is happening with his house, your reminding them that he cares for us. 
     Let me ask you this, “Would you want to see your family, the people you sacrificed for and invested and cared for; would you want to see those people destroyed?”  The obvious answer is, “No.”  Even more, than us, God doesn’t desire to see his people scattered and destroyed. He doesn’t wish to see lighthouse after lighthouse extinguished from the communities in which he has placed them. He wants to look at his people growing and flourishing and reaching more significant and deeper levels of intimacy with him. He desires the church to be what it was in the book of Acts, a powerful force of impact and evangelism to reach the uttermost parts of the earth.  He desires to see lighthouses working in conjunction with one another to fill this world with the glorious light of the gospel. He desires to add to their number daily.
This leads us to our second question

Question Two:  What is God’s Mission For The Church?
     Once people understand that God is in charge of His church, then you’re given a logical path to lead them down.  It’s almost like you’ve all gathered at the starting point on a map and now you’re ready to begin the journey, and that logical journey starts with the question, “Since God is in charge of his church, then he must have a plan for his church, so what is it?”
     By asking them this question, you’re reminding them that God has a mission that he has laid out for his people to do and His Word reveals that plan.  
Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:18-20
     That is God’s plan.  God plans that his people, his church, would rest in HIS authority and make disciples who observe (obey) everything that he has commanded.  This is God’s plan, and this is God’s purpose for the church.  Obviously, there’s a great deal more that could be said but in a nutshell, that’s it.  And, He’s even given us a strategy to accomplish his plan:
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself., – Matthew 22:37-39
     In these two passages, we’re given his purpose, his plan, and his strategy.  Fill the world with the glorious light of the gospel by loving Him and Loving others.  Love is an action.  It’s a movement.  It’s more than an emotional or mental accent it is something that moves us beyond where we’re standing today.  
     This, this is God’s Mission for the church.  Your congregation, his church, coming to grips with this reality is vital because they then need to hear the follow-up question; our third question:

Question Three:  Are We Accomplishing God’s Mission through Our Methods?
     When the times comes that you ask this question, especially in a church that’s been struggling to keep its head above water, expect an overwhelming silence to fill the room.  It’s powerful.  It’s palpable.  It’s necessary.  By asking them this third question, after lovingly asking them the other two, your giving them the opportunity to evaluate the what, why, and how of what they are currently doing.  
     What are we currently doing on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday?  Why are we doing it?  How are we making disciples and filling the world with the light of the gospel through what we’re currently doing?  
     At this moment some people are going to try to justify what they’ve always done in an attempt to save it.  But the painful reality that they must lovingly be confronted with is the fact that something isn’t working because the church is dying.  Regardless of what worked twenty-five to fifty-five years ago, it’s not working today because the church is floundering.  
     The truth of a situation is hard to face but facing the painful reality is the only way to get through it.  A dying church that puts it’s head in the sand to ignore the truth of their situation is like a person who freezes to death because their too stubborn to walk in the warm house that’s five feet away.  It’s just ridiculous.
     In and through Jesus Christ, we’re connected to the God of the universe.  He desires to see his church thriving and growing; if we’re not thriving and growing, then it’s because we’ve determined that OUR methods are more important than his message.  His message is life-giving.  His message is powerful.  His word brings that which is dead to life.  If we let go of our methodology and embrace his message, then we too can see our church restored to the glorious lighthouse that God created it to be.  
     But your congregation must be willing to honestly assess if it is accomplishing His mission through our methods.  If it isn’t achieving His mission through the methods that are being utilized, then there is a final question that must be asked.

Question Four:  What are Our Options?

      Once a body of believers have come to grips that what they’ve been doing or what they’re currently doing is no longer working, they must evaluate how they are going to proceed forward.  There are really only two choices in this matter:
     Continue our current trajectory even though we now realize that we’re not accomplishing his mission through our methods or make a change.  
     What that change looks like is going to vary based upon your current cultural context.  How that change needs to take place is going to depend on where your church is at from a body-health standpoint.  The speed and pace of what must change will depend on the severity of the current situation.
     But to stay the same is no longer a sinless option, its willful disobedience.  As a pastor or church leader, if you have cautiously and carefully walked though this process with your church then you have led them to the point of being without excuse.  No longer can they stand before God and say, “Well, I didn’t know.  That’s not what my grandparents taught me” or “I thought we were doing the right thing.”  No, now they are at a cross roads of knowing the truth of what they’re called to do and whether or not they are going to do it.  It is a hard place to be but it’s necessary.
     I pray that these questions are helpful in your journey to help lead your congregation back from the brink of death and into the glorious light of a life of faith and trust in the will and way that God would have them to go.  
This article first appeared on ChrisReinolds.com