What's gone wrong with my church?
How do you diagnose a sick church?
For this anonymous contributor at least, the symptoms are clear.
After years of growth, his church is choking…
Source: Perspective Vo7 No3&4 © Pearl Beach Press 1999
WHAT’S GONE WRONG with my church?
It’s quite simple really.
We’ve choked. Allow me to explain… My local church, like so many around the country and around the world, started a couple of decades or so ago with a small group of believers meeting together in somebody’s home. I was not around in those early days, but no doubt there was a wonderful zealous spirit among those believers, committed to growing their little congregation into a hard-working, visionary and visible landmark in the local community, fully committed to extending God’s Kingdom.
And it did just that. Through personal evangelism, outreach events and Christ-centered, Bible-based sermons, local people were converted and the numbers began to increase. Christians from other backgrounds and newcomers to our area were impressed by the little church’s energetic focus and biblical faithfulness, and joined the trickle of new people expanding the congregation. Before long, the church needed to find its own premises, and moved into a run down building which the congregation set about renovating with great enthusiasm.
As the congregation continued to grow, new Bible study groups were formed, aimed at reaching different groups within the local community. Soon the new premises which had seemed so big to the pioneers who had helped to move the church there was bursting at the seams, and plans were laid for the building of a large church hall in which to hold services. Money was tight in the economy of the day, but through sacrificial giving and the generosity of other supportive congregations, the hall was built and a neighbouring house was bought to serve as the church office.
An old outbuilding was renovated during weekends by members of the congregation, ready to serve as a new crèche; it wasn’t long before classrooms were added to serve the newly established Sunday school program, which drew even more members of the community to the church. And all the time new groups were forming among the congregation, aiming to serve more and more of the congregations needs.
The church hall was extended again, and even so, for special events like Christmas and Easter, and visiting evangelistic speakers, it was difficult to fit everyone in. But then things started to slow down. The change was imperceptible at first, but over the last couple of years it has become more and more noticeable that the church just isn’t what it used to be.
Each Sunday the space between families seated in each pew seems a little larger, and there is no longer any need to bring in extra seats for the Christmas and Easter services. There are still plenty of Bible study groups running – around 40 in fact – aimed at different segments of the congregation, but somehow new people just are not joining us like they used to.
What’s gone wrong? My church, and possibly yours, and undoubtedly many others around the world have fallen prey to what is sometimes known as the ‘choke law’. This ‘law’ was first identified by Roman Catholic missiologists, but it applies just as directly to evangelical churches. A church chokes when, after some growth, and indeed because of growth, there is a subtle shift in the focus of the time and money expended by the leadership of the church. As the church grows and becomes more and more diverse, there is a multiplication of the particular needs of the members of the congregation, and the time and energy once devoted to outreach is slowly redirected to care for the church’s own members instead, which ‘chokes’ the ongoing mission to the remaining undiscipled population in the local community.
So, for example, as the church grows, a need becomes evident to someone within the church leadership for a group to support and encourage the single parents in the church, or perhaps those with financial difficulties. A worthy endeavour indeed, and surely one that warrants taking just a little time away from preparing that annual evangelistic dinner, or that series of evangelistic sermons. And there have been numerous requests from the congregation for the minister to preach more on the practical problems of day to day Christian living, and that can’t be a bad thing, can it? And so slowly, but surely, the church starts to suffocate under it’s own weight. ‘But that can’t be what’s happening,’ a proud member of my local church might respond, ‘we’re an evangelical church, of course we’re evangelistic. Just look at all the missionaries we support.’ As important as missions are, however, sending missionaries to far flung places does not exempt a local church from it’s duty to evangelise the local community. ‘Aha, but we do evangelise – you can’t ignore our visitation teams that go out to take the gospel to householders in our area.’ True enough, but a token evangelistic endeavour that takes the gospel to perhaps six people per week and offers no follow up is no substitute for a church whose fundamental outlook is evangelistic.
A vibrant, God-honouring church that avoids the choke law is one that, in all it’s activities, asks one fundamental question: ‘How can we teach people to repent and believe the good news about Jesus Christ?’ That must be the focus for everything that happens in the church, from the mothers and tots group, to the sermon, to the handshake as you enter the church door. And it must go even further than church events, and specific evangelistic outreach activities, to become the entrenched principle in the lives of each member of the congregation in every part of their day to day lives. A common illustration used as a warning in the business world is the example of the railway barons of America in the last century. They made a fortune transporting goods and people across America as the country grew.
They built huge empires, kingdoms almost, and had it all – infrastructure, money and skills. Yet one by one their little kingdoms collapsed. Why? Because they forgot what business they were in. They thought that they were in the business of railroading, whereas they were in reality in the transportation business. So when cars and trucks became common, they ignored them, and when airliners started up, they ignored them too, and slowly their empires crumbled. We in the Church must learn from this lesson too.
My local church has come to think that we’re in the business of serving our congregation, but we’re not, at least not primarily. Our business is first and foremost, always and unequivocally to take the good news about Jesus Christ to those who do not know him. Of course that does not mean that there is no room for any pastoral care in the local church, far from it. But what is important is how we think about that pastoral care – it is not care for it’s own sake (to make people happier, say) but it is care aimed at strengthening and equipping Christians to be more Christ-like, which ultimately cannot be divorced from our Lord’s primary goal – to save souls. No local church has any God-given right to continue to exist if it does not fulfil the mission to which God has called it – to seek and save the lost. The only way to stop our little kingdom from crumbling is to remember that our job is to extend our Lord’s Kingdom. May God give us the wisdom and courage to change.
Reprinted with permission from “noetic” magazine