Very Sick Churches

I like to be a bearer of good news. I like to be able to be positive about situations, especially when those situations involve churches. At the same time, I refuse to deny reality. Such denial can only lead to a worsened condition.

For the past several months, I have been researching and writing my upcoming book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church. The book actually began with a post on this blog. The responses to that post were overwhelming, so much so that I decided to expand it to a short book that will be released by B&H Publishing in May 2014.

Churches typically do not move from good health to dying overnight. It is usually a more subtle deterioration. I have identified five simple stages:

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  • Health
  • Symptoms of sickness
  • Very sick
  • Dying
  • Deceased

I estimate that about 40%, or around 150,000 churches in America, are in the very sick stage. They are one stage away from being terminal.

Is it difficult for a church to move out of this stage before it becomes terminal? Absolutely. Most churches will continue to deteriorate. But I always have the hope Jesus gave us when he responded to His disciples about the rich young man: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:24).

So what are some of the indicators that a church is very sick? Again, terminology and definitions are imprecise, but here are some of the more notable signs:

  • Significant numerical decline over the past ten to twenty years. Most of the time we measure worship attendance for this metric.
  • Prolonged times of apathy. Occasional times of intense conflict. The church seems more apathetic than anything else, but conflict can arise with surprising intensity.
  • The church is not known in the community. Ask a clerk at a store in the community. You may be surprised how few even know the church exists.
  • New members are rare. The exodus clearly exceeds the inflow.
  • Revolving door of pastors. Frustration and conflict limit the years of pastoral tenure.
  • The "good old days" are typically twenty or more years in the past. There has been a long season since anyone felt really good about the church.

Very sick churches do not have to manifest all of these symptoms, but they typically have at least three of them. Once they move to this stage, reversal of the deterioration is incredibly difficult. If the members had recognized and acknowledged the problems earlier, the help could have been more beneficial.

I do have a few examples of churches that did reverse the course of their extreme sickness to health. They are rare. I hope to share what took place in those congregations in a post in the near future.

Dr. Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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