Project Space: to a diagnosis and beyond!

I hope that, for some of you at least, Buzz Lightyear was the narrator as the you read the title for today’s post!

If you have read any of my recent posts you will have ‘heard’ me referring to Thom Rainer’s sobering book Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 ways to keep yours alive.

I don’t know about you, but this title really grabbed me. The NTV and I really like a good crime drama and the post-mortem is always a vital stage in uncovering the truth. No matter how well a criminal has covered his or her tracks the victim’s body can hold the clues that – given the right detective on the case of course – will be lead to their undoing.

Dr. Thom Rainer wants to show us the story told by churches that have died. As it says on the back of the book: “for more than twenty-five years, Dr. Thom Rainer has helped churches grow, reverse the trends of decline, and has autopsied those that have died. From his experience, he has discovered consistent themes among those churches that have died. Yet, it’s not doom and gloom because, from those themes, lessons on how to keep your church alive have emerged.”

So what has he uncovered? What are the common strands that Rainer has identified?

Please note: The main bullet points below are a brief summary of Dr. Rainer’s findings. The sub-points are simply my reflections and questions. They are not conclusive, or authoritative. They need to be looked at by the NTV and by our brothers and sisters in Christ alongside whom we serve.

  • There has been Slow Erosion over a number of years, often going undetected. The result: a lack of ownership of the decline that is only just being seen.
    • A thought for us to consider: Have we been wrongly expecting our churches to grow, when it is fact necessary for us first to weep and repent?
  • The Past is the Hero. Deceased churches were found to have been holding on to the past as the hero and wanting to keep things, or return things to, the way they used to be. The strength of the church in the past (whether real or perceived) is seen as the key to future strength. Nostalgia takes root and, as John James notes in Renewal, nostalgia doesn’t lead to growth, but to inertia. He also warns that nostalgia is not so much driven by a love of the way things were, as it is by a fear of the way things are today. Rainer puts it this way: “it is not just the past they revered. It was their personal good old days”. He compares this attitude to the attitudes of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11: “The ‘good old days’ did not exist in their minds. The future held the best days. They understood that this life is not a time to get comfortable” (page 20 2014 edition)

    • Thoughts for us to consider: The past is not the villain of the piece. Clinging to the past, rather than to Jesus is the problem. Being guided by the way things have been done, or understood in the past rather than by the words of the Lord Jesus – that is the mistake we are in danger of making.

  • The church refused to look like the community. In deceased churches the changes that had occurred in their local community were not reflected in appropriate changes to church culture and activities. Instead there was often a fear from the church as the community around them changed resulting in a protective entrenchment, and an inward focus. As a result the churches lost their heart and ministry for their communities. Even when they had made the effort to look more like their communities, the deceased churches had stopped actually ministering to those around them.
    • Thoughts for us to consider: We DO need to identify the cultural gaps between us and our community – the ways in which we just don’t fit well in our villages. NOT in terms of abandoning biblical truths that are becoming less and less acceptable in our communities, but in the areas of church life that are purely cultural expressions of those unchanging truths.
      • BUT I believe there is an even deeper and a more pressing question that needs to be asked. Many of the case studies looked at by both Rainer and James had at least started with a gospel view of their relationship with the community – however outdated and odd-looking their methods of sharing the gospel had become. In our case, I believe that Jesus’ command to go and make disciples has either: never taken root; got lost along the way; or been consciously rejected. It seems to me that the role of the church in our communities has been established (possibly without realising it) according to the viewpoints and preferences of certain members of the church. This has happened much as the founding members/current committee of a club would set the tone of any relationships they might have with those they come into contact with. As John James points out however “a church is not a club formed by a committee, but a community formed by Christ”.
      • And so I ask us to consider: is the above point a fair analysis and if so how do we establish a confidence in and a passion for God’s purposes for us in the community?
  • The Budget Moved Inwardly. “Over time the funds of the church were used more to keep the machinery maintain the Will trust and generous partnership in funding the Great Commission and the Great Commandment”. (Page 36) Sadly many of the deceased churches had held onto their money so they that always have enough to keep going until they died.
    • Thoughts for us to consider: How can we learn to trust God to give us enough for us to carry out his purposed for us? Currently I feel that we are relying on self-preservation to keep our club going, rather than investing in the eternal work of the gospel, remembering that it is Christ who formed us and Christ who will preserve us.
  • The Great Commission Becomes the Great Omission. Dying churches are good at remembering when they were full and new people joined them regularly but bad at correctly identifying the way Jesus commands us to grow his church and the manner of growth that he desires. Matthew 28:19-20 is full of action words: Go, make disciples, baptize disciples, teach disciples. The deceased churches had neglected these activities and neglected to depend totally upon the power of Christ to grow his church through them. They wanted a thriving church to just happen without prayer, without sacrifice, and without hard work. And the growth they desired was only the sort of growth that met their preferences and that allowed them stay comfortable.
    • Thoughts for us to consider: In what ways have we stopped going as Jesus’ commanded and stopped depending on his power to bring growth? Where do we GO to for growth and what do we RELY ON for power? What sort of growth do we really want?
  • The Preference-Driven Church. Each of the deceased churches had shifted focus from others to themselves. A church cannot survive long-term where the members are focussed on their own preferences. That is: “MY music style, MY desired length and order of worship services, MY desired colour and design of buildings and rooms, MY activities nd programmes, MY need of ministers and staff, MY, My MY..” Membership in the church is not country club membership – paying your dues and getting perks. We do not exist to serve ourselves; instead, we exist for the greater good of the body.
    • Thoughts for us to consider: In what ways are we a preference-driven church and whose preferences are in the driving seat?
  • Pastoral Tenure Decreases. In other words the length of time each successive minister stays gets shorter and shorter. Note: Although there is some ‘translation work’ that needs to be done in order to put this in a C of E context I still think the trend is a valid one to look out for.  Rainer looks at the various stages in the relationship between a minister and the church. He identifies the typical periods of conflict, and the resulting crossroads faced. In the churches that had died there had been few pastors who had stayed beyond the first conflict/crossroad period and therefore few that had reached the season of fruit and harvest that typically follows.
    • Thoughts for us to consider: Are we prepared to go through this time of crossroads and conflict together? Do we believe that there can be a time of fruit and harvest beyond it?
  • The Church Rarely Prayed Together. As Rainer looked back at the death of a church with one of its members a light went on and the tears welled up. He admitted: “We stopped taking prayer seriously. And the church started dying.” Looking at the early church they were passionate, intense and fervent about prayer. It was their lifeblood.”They had no doubt that God was listening and responding. A failure to pray was tantamount to a failure to breathe”.
    • Thoughts for us to consider: How can we evaluate the lack of prayer in our churches without falling at the first hurdle: “It just isn’t the way we pray here, we don’t feel comfortable praying in a group, prayer is private.”
  • The Church Had No Purpose. A church without a purpose is not really a church at all. As former members of churches that had died put it:
    • “We were playing a game called church. We had no idea what we were supposed to be doing”
    • “We became more attached to our ways of doing church than we did asking the Lord what he wanted us to do.”
    • “We stopped asking what we should be doing for fear that it would require too much effort to change.”
    • Thoughts for us to consider: What is our purpose? Are we willing to answer to answer this question and follow through on what we find? When a game is being played, even if there are many who don’t know what they are supposed to be doing there are generally some who do, the ones running the game. There must be people running things in our churches with a particular purpose in mind – we have to get those purposes out into the light of day – or rather the light of God’s word.
  • The Church Obsessed Over the Facilities. Rainer sadly identified the frequency with which divisions and the death that followed them revolved around fabric issues. He helpfully concludes: “Being a good steward of those material things that God has given our churches is good. Becoming obsessed with any one item to the neglect of His mission is idolatry.”
    • Thoughts for us to consider: We have a particularly complicated arrangement with our buildings. To what extent has good stewardship tipped over into idolatry at the expense of God’s mission? Where does our responsibility lie? Where does the care of the buildings and the business of running a visited building need to be more clearly separated from the central purpose of the church – not neglecting that business, but disentangling it from and submitting it to our purpose of making disciples?

So those are the tools for THE DIAGNOSIS. As I apply them to our situation the signs seems to point to a serious, if not terminal illness. Of course the formal diagnosis does not rest with me, but in the meantime I have clarified what I want to bring to the table – if there ever is a table and if I am ever invited to it. I can also commit to pray for the church that I believe is so sick, and that I love so much. To make that really easy there are even brilliant prayer committments linked to each symptom that Rainer identifies.

And what about BEYOND a diagnosis? Well if my application of the diagnostic tools is correct and according to the research done by Thom Rainer the chances of our churches surviving long-term, and thriving into the future are not very high. The prognosis is bad.

However, Thom Rainer does have some hope for very sick churches such as ours. He believes that there can be a return to health if:

  1. God is working to preserve his people’s witness in the Barony. Nothing is impossible with God!
  2. God has given the churches a willing leader committed to intentionally lead them through a process of recovering their call to make disciples of Jesus.
  3. God has opened the hearts of people in the church to humbly examine the need for repentance for the loss of focus, to take ownership for the decline of the church, and to adopt a clear gospel vision and plan for our churches.

And that gives me a huge sense of excitement about what may lie in the beyond God has for us as Jesus’ people and for the people he is calling us to reach with the amazing news of the gospel.

PS Please forgive the poor spacing in this post – I tried putting gaps between the main points and the thoughts to consider, but the computer has overruled.

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