Is your church supposed to survive?
When I came to Mountair as the pastor in September of 2009 there were 50-60 people on an average Sunday with about 70-80% of them over 75 years old. It has been around for almost 90 years and in the past enjoyed a vibrant and growing ministry. But by the time I came there was little doubt it was nearing the end of its life cycle. Like many declining churches Mountair had enough money and leadership to hang on for a handful of years, but the writing was on the wall, it was headed toward death.
God blessed us with quite a few new people from the community over the first year and a half and we got to see some amazing transformations. But the stark reality was that most of the growth was with people who weren’t in a position to give much financially (many of them are VERY generous, but the widow’s mite doesn’t pay the bills) and the chaos of their lives made it difficult for many of them to step into leadership roles. At the same time, we lost close to half of our core of older people in those two years. Some passed away, others needed to move to nursing homes or assisted living and many found it necessary to step back from the leadership roles they’d held for years. In short, God was giving us some great ministry, but we had to face the facts that financially and with leadership we couldn’t keep going like that.
I prayed a lot. I asked God if to show me how to move forward. And then a funny thing happened, I felt led to start praying about whether we should try to keep going or just be faithful until we couldn’t keep going and then shut the doors. There is an inherent belief for most churches that they must survive–as though the Church relies on their church. It took me a long time to be sincerely open to God’s leading of whether we should keep going or be faithful and die gracefully.
I don’t know of a church that would list “survival” among their core values. But the truth is that this is a primary unspoken core value for many. When survival becomes the unspoken primary value of a local church it has some disastrous side effects.
It stunts our vision.
Remember when you started at the church where you are now? Whether you planted it, went on staff, or started attending, it is likely you had some big dreams for what would happen there. You probably jumped in with passion, motivation, and faith. You were willing to risk believing that God would take care of you and the church. You had real vision. But over time things didn’t happen quite the way you thought they would. You began settling for smaller and smaller visions. You thought about what you could accomplish instead of what God wanted to accomplish through you and the church. When the unspoken need to survive begins to rule you pull back from those risky visions completely, settle for what you can already see, and do whatever keeps money in the accounts. The need to survive is the enemy of vision.
It makes us primarily concerned about pleasing people.
You can’t upset people when you’re trying to survive. They might quit giving, or even leave the church completely! So we back off of any prophetic preaching–even when we feel the Spirit leading us toward it. We shy away from any confrontations–even if they would help someone grow to more maturity in faith. We don’t challenge any opinions about the direction of the church–we just want people to be happy.
It kills mission.
If I am primarily about concerned about my own survival I am not going to give away too much of my paycheck, go as a missionary to a dangerous country, or even go volunteer in a rough part of my city. Eventually I may go to extremes and avoid driving (do you know how many fatal accidents there are in a year?), going up and down stairs (hey, people fall!), or eating at restaurants (you don’t know what they put in that food). As survival roots itself deeper in our church the same thing happens. We need all our resources to keep going, we can’t spend our time or money on others. We are wary of new people because we don’t know if we can trust them. We’ll settle for making ourselves comfortable as long as we can. It seems counter-intuitive, but the need to survive makes us less focused on mission because we are focused on ourselves.
It leads to the loss of the rest of our values.
When we get desperate we’ll try anything to survive. Churches have paid to bring in better musicians, started preaching self-help sermon series, and even offered a cash prize for someone who comes to the service. These things aren’t mission, they’re marketing. They’re not aimed at transformation, they’re aimed at putting butts in the seats (and hopefully dollars in the offering). The high values the church used to have–the ones probably still hanging on the wall or plastered on the brochures–are exchanged for the hope of survival.
Should your church survive?
God does revive churches. Sometimes dying churches aren’t dead. Sometimes God even wants to raise up churches that look dead. But sometimes a church has been faithful to its calling from God and it’s time to finish well. There is nothing wrong with either. The point is to be faithful to what God wants for a church–and he never wants a church to hold survival as its primary value. If your church is dying–or just surviving–pray that God shows you what he wants for you. If his will is for you to keep going it will be on the path of risk, mission, and faithfulness to the call of Jesus to be disciples. It will not be on a path of comfort, exclusion, and hoarding.
Want to know how God led Mountair? Here’s a clue.