In the interest of being clear, I state the following: There may be many reasons for church death, but the right minister can shepherd a congregation to Christ-centered solutions that will keep that congregation viable in its community and in the body of Christ. The right pastor can inspire change; the wrong one can instill despair.
There are O&A churches that thrive, and O&A churches that are die for becoming so. Within the subgroup of thriving, successful churches are liberal churches and conservative churches, larger churches and smaller churches, churches in debt and churches in the clear, etc. None of these factors per se seems to determine church survival. I contend that the crisis of church survival is primarily a crisis of leadership, and not of styles or social factors.
Pastoral performance is a taboo subject in the church today. However, we can and should consider the factors that enable a given pastor to sequentially save — or bury — church after church. For starters, let’s at least understand that all who succeed want to succeed, and among those that fail, at least some of them want to fail! There are others who simply believe that church success and survival are beside the point — and I’m not saying they are wrong. I will say, however, that if you want a particular congregation to survive as a church, one or more leaders within that congregation has to choose to help it survive! And while human willpower is not the point, I do think that the pastor who insists that a church survive and thrive is more likely to make the hard decisions that help it to do so!
There is not one instance in scripture where God wills the death or failure of a church. Revelation has seven letters warning seven churches to shape up or perish.
Some people seem to think that church death is good. By some theologies, everything that happens is therefore God’s will, God being all-powerful and all-knowing. Why, then, would God advise anyone in any direction whatsoever? No, God does not will the damnation of souls or the demise of congregations. At worst, God permits us to choose between life and death.
The choice, however, is ours alone. God clearly prefers we choose life. God told the children of Israel how to survive as a nation, but let them choose to survive or perish.
If you believe Que Sera, Sera — what will be, will be — then you rest secure in your own salvation and write off every failure as God’s will. If that’s true, then it must be God’s will that I work with dreamers, because I want ministry partners who are willing to work for the kingdom of God!
Some pastors move from church to church, leaving each one in worse shape than before. Some people, given free rein, would move from committee to committee, ministry to ministry, job to job, confident that God wills success or failure, thereby relieving them of any responsibility.
At a General Assembly — the national gathering of Disciples of Christ — in Ft. Worth a few years ago, I overheard a minister at lunch say, “The last two churches I served are dead, and they deserved to die!” There’s a man of great faith — in the wrong theology!
2 Peter 3:9 says God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Isn’t God powerful enough to get what God wants? So why do any perish? Because we decide to repent or not, to struggle or surrender, to be generous or greedy.
Generally speaking, Disciples are not Calvinists. But you wouldn’t know it to hear them talk of the inevitable demise of traditional church. Where traditional church is deemed too unholy to survive, the traditional church that actually survives and thrives becomes demonized as something unnatural, or essentially unChristian.
I’m not saying that church success requires a big-steeple church — but a big-steeple church building can certainly be useful real estate. I’m not saying that Elders must be old — but elderly people just might remember some essential element of church success from days gone by. I’m not saying that a 500-seat auditorium is a good fit for a 50-member congregation — but both can be excellent springboards for going forward as church!
I pray that pastors who decide that a church should fail will instead realize that they have failed to inspire the congregation. Instead of giving troubled churches an interim pastor, perhaps we should give troubled pastors an interim career, where they can shake their faith in inevitable death and regain the notion that with God, nothing is impossible.