Healing, Sick and Dying Churches

June 9, 2006 by

This is part four in a continuing series, Is Church Growth the Highway to Hell?

So if a church isn’t growing, what’s happening? Rick Warren says it’s dying, that it’s diseased. It’s a bleak image, but one that seems fairly accurate.

However, organisms do get sick. It’s fairly natural for churches to go through sick periods when they get off track and need to heal. As a result, growth may sputter.

It also seems applicable that plants often need pruning. It’s an image that comes up in the Bible a few times. Pruning in itself isn’t growth and it may be a necessary stageā€”but it’s worth pointing out that the whole point of pruning is to further growth.

Perhaps we can conclude that if a church isn’t growing, it should be going through a process that will eventually lead to growth. Maybe it needs time to heal. Maybe it had to remove a tumor, and such a process would hinder growth temporarily. But the point of removing a tumor is that the body can be healthy and growing again.

It’s also true that organisms die. Death is a natural part of life. While it’s disheartening to see, some churches may need to die. But I think we see them being reborn as new churches are planted. Taking the analogy of the church as an organism a step farther, that body can die, and return to the ground and so fuel other organisms. It’s the cycle of life.

Perhaps local churches aren’t meant to last forever, but the universal Church is, and so it will continue growing in some way.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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8 Responses to “Healing, Sick and Dying Churches”

  • Paul
    June 9, 2006

    Another consideration:
    Some towns are losing population. While there are still, in all likelyhood, unsaved people in the community, this could make it difficult to “grow.”
    Europe is also losing population, as a continent, so much so that France has instituted a policy to pay people to have a third child (story at http://washingtontimes.com/world/20050920-115211-8871r.htm)

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  • Nancy A
    June 9, 2006

    I once met a nun from a dying order. She was one of the last ones. I asked her if she was sad about her order dying out, but she said she wasn’t at all. Dying was part of being alive. And the death of her order showed that it had been alive and had lived out its purpose.
    I found her perspective very spiritual.
    Living communities ebb and flow, die out and rebuild as a new community. They don’t remain static and unchanging unless rigor mortis has set in.
    I don’t believe the Christian church is immortal at all. Look at the early church. Compare it to the church of the inquisition in the middle ages. Compare that to the post-Galilean church and then the post-Darwinian church. The whole born-again movement was “born” in the 1920s, coming out of the US revivalist movement. Yet there are people who believe that is the one and only kind of Christianity!!
    Each age changes what Christianity is. Maybe the name has stayed the same, but really nothing else has. It’s an illusion to think otherwise.
    There is a huge risk to looking at growth for growth’s sake, as if G*d somehow “wants us” to create a gargantuan, forever-and-ever thing.
    We sell our souls to become immortal.

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  • Eric Jaffe
    June 11, 2006

    I think there is one other scenario that Warren may not have fully accounted for that I think Ted Haggard in The Life Giving Church accounted for well. Haggard suggests that straight line continual growth may not be the best way to grow because you never have time to catch up, reinforce, and then grow again.
    He suggests a more healthy growth curve consists of series of growth spurts followed by plateus.
    We have generally had our leveling off period during the summers with virtually continual growth during the school years.
    Knowing this we have used summers not just as a time for rest, but also as a time of re-examining and recruiting.
    For instance this year we are using the summer months to revise our strategic plan, revisit job decriptions, role requirements, and organizational structure so we can head out of the gates in august ready and raring to go.
    In essence we savor the leveling off times. I think this happens in nature too. Plants nor animals really continuously grow, but sometimes lay dormant, (NOT DYING), but then kick back into the next growth spurt.
    Oh well, thats my thoughts.

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  • Rocky
    June 11, 2006

    It’s been said before: in a culture where everything from political polls to market share is measured in quantitative figures, the church has an opportunity to live into the qualitative. An insistence on perpetual numerical growth only shows the church’s captivity to the ideology of the market.
    Qualitative growth should lead to quantitative growth, but I don’t think quantitative growth is its own end. Since somebody mentioned the great commision earlier, it’s good to point out that “making disciples” is about more than adding to the list of the converted. It’s about forming worshippers; It’s about teaching and serving and reorienting all of life’s loyalties to fall under the Kingdom of God. That’s growth. And the more of that the better.

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  • Dan
    June 13, 2006

    The idea that it’s “natural” for a church or religious order to die is bizarre and unbiblical. A death like that shows a failure to adapt to the culture (that doesn’t mean changing the message).
    Visit any mainline denominations, all of whom are declining, btw, and you’ll find an obsession with a style of worship that seems medieval — robes, organs, out-of-date language — that gets in the way of communicating the Gospel and affecting peoples lives.
    I attended one of these churches last Sunday. No young adults, few children. Lots of old people. About 100 people. Used to be about 400 when my wife attended as a child.
    “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shinging brighter and brighter until the full light of day.” Proverbs 4:18

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  • Mike
    June 14, 2006

    Life, death, rebirth. Reincarnation? If you tried hard, do you come back as a megachurch?
    Seriously, sociologist Gary Farley has found that unless a church rethinks and reshapes who it is at least by the 35th anniversay, it will most likely die off before it celebrates 50. And our youth-oriented culture seems more concerned about starting new “hip” churches than fixing and resurrecting dying churches.
    It may be better to measure quantity as a percentage. When a pastor wins 12 converts to a struggling older church of 20 members, that’s a victory! The area’s population won’t support a megachurch, but that’s no reason to give up on a dozen souls otherwise bound for hell.

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  • Jaime
    January 17, 2007

    Failure to adapt to changing demographics and a desire to maintain the status quo also effect church growth. Christians get sentimental about their church, they remember things the way they were 20 years ago and instead of adapting and making the necessary changes that keep things fresh, they want to keep that “old time religion” that was good enough for, you know the song. Many churches become legalistic, which is also a barrier to growth. But most churches that stagnate and die do so because they fail to realize their purpose and so they lose thier zeal for the lost, which is the primary reason the church exists. Winning people to Christ at all costs must remain primary, everything else pales to that (1 Cor. 10:32-33). We must become all things to all people that we might win some to Christ. All the prefuntionary things that churches due, are like the ritualistic sacrifices that the Israelites performed. It became death orthodoxy that the Lord despised. He wants the heart of the man or woman. He wants people sold out to Him who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Christ. Churches die because they forget the purpose of their existence. Denominational names don’t matter to Christ, they stagnate growth, so drop the name. Change the worship service from the way it’s been run for the last 20 years, people today like drums and more instruments. Stop wearing suits, worship spontaneously. Churches die because they lose their vision and become nostalgic antiques that are ineffectual for Christ. Well, I’ve rambled enough, the point is that dying churches die because the people fail to adapt & change. You don’t change God’s Word or truth, but you can and must change to win the lost at all costs.

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  • Mike
    January 27, 2007

    Sorry, Jamie, but the purpose of the church is not to “win people to Christ at all costs.” That task belongs to the individuals. The purpose of the church is to provide community for the saved where they can build one another up in the knowledge of the faith, to pray for one another, to cooperate in meeting one another’s physical, social and spiritual needs, and to cooperate in focused prayer and worship.
    Whether I wear a tux or a T-shirt is a secondary issue. Whether we sing contemporary praise at 90 decibels or harmonize hundred-year-old-hymns ‘a capella” is secondary at best.
    Churches die when they forget who they are supposed to be. When they become social clubs they are no use to the Father, and He removes His blessing. Some become shallow and worldly in hopes to stay “relevant” but only run off the genuine seeker in favor of recruiting the shallow and worldly.
    Churches live when they remember they are “houses of prayer”, where the saints of God care for one another and go looking when one of the congregational sheep wanders off, and where the scripture is honestly and effectively taught (including the calls for repentence and salvation).

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