In Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, Thom Rainer relates the sobering statistic that as many as 100,000 churches in America are showing signs of decline toward death.
In his study of fourteen churches that actually shuttered their doors and disbanded, Rainer came to see some common denominators present in the parishes that closed. His findings serve as a wake-up call to all churches, struggling or not.
One of the common denominators was that in each of the failing churches the past was the hero. Members remembered fondly the “good old days” and generally desired to do things “the way we used to.” This is not to say that nostalgia in and of itself is a bad thing. It is a good thing to remember “where we came from,” but churches need to be willing to move on and adjust to the changing needs of the congregation and the community in order to survive.
A second common denominator that Rainer mentioned is what he calls “Great Commission Amnesia.” The churches that closed lost sight of Christ’s mission “to go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Their focus became centered on “staying” and not “going.” They tended to look inward on self-preservation instead of outward on bringing Christ to others.
I have to admit that felt convicted when I was reading these words. I very much tend to idealize the church days I had as a child with Sunday school and Christmas programs, choirs and camp-outs. But church life, like everything in life, changes over the years and I realize that I need to spend more time looking forward and less time looking back as I serve in the church and as I share my opinions on activities that are taking place within my congregation.
I also need to keep the call of the Great Commission at the forefront of my mind in my church life and in my personal life. Worrying about which church time to go to should not be more of a concern to me than worrying about sharing my faith with friends and neighbors outside of church and inviting them to join me for worship.
In all of this, Rainer recommends that we look to the “great cloud of witnesses” listed in Hebrews 11 as our role models: “All of these men and women were heroes of faith because they obeyed God even though they did not know the consequences of their obedience. They sacrificed their comfort, their homes, their ways of life, and their possessions because they knew that this life was only temporary, that a better and eternal life awaited them. ‘The good old days’ did not exist in their minds. The future held better days” (Autopsy of a Deceased Church, pp.19-20).
So keeping looking forward and keep going out of your comfort zones to grow the Church. It is the only way to stem the tide of decline.
And remember that Jesus said at the end of the Great Commission: I am with you always (Matthew 28:20). He will help us do it.