A Dying Church?


What Now ? (1)

The Packaging

 Thom Rainer, the President of Lifeway Christian Resources, in his research on churches in the United States, has identified the five warning signs that he says are best indications that a church’s health is changing for the worse, and that need to be addressed before they create a terminal condition –

1. The church has few outwardly focused ministries. Most of the budget dollars in the church are spent on the desires and comforts of church members. The ministry staff spends most of its time taking care of members, with little time to reach out and minister to the community the church is supposed to serve.

2. The dropout rate is increasing. Members are leaving for other churches in the community, or they are leaving the local church completely. A common exit interview theme we heard was a lack of deep biblical teaching and preaching in the church.

3. The church is experiencing conflict over issues of budgets and building. When the focus of church members becomes how the facilities and money can meet their preferences, church health is clearly on the wane.

4. Corporate prayer is minimized. If the church makes prayer a low priority, it makes God a low priority.

5. The pastor has become a chaplain. The church members view the pastor as their personal chaplain, expecting him to be on call for their needs and preferences. When he doesn’t make a visit at the expected time, or when he doesn’t show up for the Bible class fellowship, he receives criticism. In not a few cases, the pastor has lost his job at that church because he was not omnipresent for the church members.


So, how would you rate Northway’s health using these diagnostic standards? I give us a mixed evaluation. We’re certainly not sick unto death, but neither are we the smiling picture of health.  I trust that we can agree that there is sufficient cause for us to be concerned.  The critical question is what should we do about it?  In my last post I suggested that it is how we answer “a pretty simple question” that will go a long way in directing our efforts. “What is the good news that we have to offer?”  If your answer to this question is “Northway,” then there is no secret about what we need to do to become successful. 

One of the respondents to Thom Rainer’s original posting about the “Five Warning Signs of Declining Church Health” wrote about what the typical church consultant would tell a church that showed signs of faltering health to do –

The consultant will focus on people outside of your church. Consultants will insist that outsiders are more important than the people who are committed to your church and attend regularly… The consultant will declare the number of people attending your church equals the amount of favor your congregation has with God. If members are leaving your church for a church that offers to itch the ears of its members, the consultant will recommend that you satisfy those itching ears… The consultant will work to cause conflicts over issues of budgets and building. Since your church is going to be implementing these new programs that faithful church members don’t want… The consultant will shriek in horror if he finds a hymn book on the premises of your church. If your church insist on singing hymns based on scripture or with hundreds of years of acceptance you must remove these. How can the outsider raise their hands if they are holding onto a hymn book? Drummers also have a very difficult time with most hymns so you will need to rewrite the melody of any hymn that is to be sung or performed. Organs if they can be found in your church are a blessing, because these can be sold to lesser churches to pay for consultant fees… The Consultant will minimize Scripture. Maybe not on “purpose” but if leadership techniques and best practices from the business world are implemented as ways to run your church at some point the scripture will have to be consulted less…

The idea behind this rather caustic response is that if a church is in the church business then it is by making the church more compatible with what people who are not there say they want that will make the church more successful numerically. 

A couple of years ago we had a church visitor who worshiped with us for a season.  He had been a “successful” pastor of a growing church in a different denomination.  He had parlayed that success into a national speaking career.  He went all over the country telling churches what they needed to do in order to grow.  Eventually he burned out, and he showed up for a while here at Northway.  He told me right up front that he wasn’t going to join, and that he wasn’t going to stay for very long.  He was just going to come for a while to sing the hymns, hear the word faithfully preached and to take communion.  In one of the messages I preached while he was with us, I talked about this general topic of dying churches that I’ve been writing about now in my blog for the past few weeks.   In the week after that sermon he took me to lunch with the express purpose of telling me that things were hopeless for Northway, that we were going to die.  From his expertise as a church growth specialist, he told me that the degree of change that we would have to make as a church in order to become attractive in this market were so massive as to be prohibitive.  He held out no hope for our future vitality.  We simply were not going to be “winners” in this church climate.  He wasn’t trying to be mean or cruel he assured me, just honest.  Bands, big screens, entertainment worship and cool preachers in blue jeans with a simple, practical, folksy message is what people want these days.  And since Northway is a church with a pipe organ, a paper bulletin, tradition and a teaching preacher in a robe, we didn’t stand a chance.  He promised me that he would continue to come for a while himself, for nostalgia’s sake, and to heal a bit, but even he wouldn’t be around for long.  And he kept his word.  In a few months he was gone, but not our conversation. 

Was he right?  Are things hopeless for a church like us?  In the years since that lunch we’ve continued to lose members to exactly the kinds of churches he described, a slow trickle, but steady.  And as we’ve shrunk and they’ve grown, I’ve thought often about what he said.  

It appears to me that “church” consists of three things these days: packaging, a product and a marketing plan.  And I can’t help but notice that many of the most “successful” churches that I see in our culture have truly impressive packages.  I know this will get a response, but I can’t account for Joel Osteen in any other way.  His product is just barely Christian.  It plays as well in culture as it does in church.  In fact, if he never mentioned Jesus Christ at all, he’d still pack people in.  And that’s because Joel Osteen is a heck of a package – the prototypical “personality” preacher that John MacArthur talked about (see my last blog) – who puts on quite a show.  And while there’s no Joel Osteen in the wings at Northway, we could probably get a numerical bump by making some of the packaging changes that they say success in this church culture demands.  I harbor no illusions that making these changes would be easy for us.  Several times in recent years the subject of putting up retractable screens in the sanctuary has been broached, and the passionate resistance to even this most modest of proposals says something about the degree of resistance we would face in making the kinds of changes that would be necessary to make our packaging more culturally attractive.

Part of the resistance is aesthetics, what pleases our tastes and what doesn’t.    But part of the resistance is principled.  We are Disciples, and as I quoted from an editorial that James Merrell wrote for The Disciple back in 1981 –

Disciples cherish simplicity in worship…our Reformed heritage of worship is “spare” and devoid of gimmickry… it can be guilty of coldness and a lack of emotion, but the excesses of the other extreme are more dangerous.                                                                          

As Disciples, I suspect that most of us would agree that when it’s all said and done, while better packaging could certainly help, that it’s the product that finally matters.  Do you remember all that lipstick on a pig talk from the Presidential campaign the last time round?  Well, as Disciples we clearly understand that the lipstick is the packaging and that the pig is the product.  So, the important question is: “How’s the Disciple pig?”




Filed under Soundings

2 responses to “A Dying Church?

  1. Sharon

    Don’t you find it somewhat ironical that the man who said Northway’s future prospects were hopeless found it a place of sustanence and renewal when he was “burned out”?

  2. Pingback: A Dying Church (Final) | Northway Christian Church Blog

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