Why do some churches grow and others die?

Q. I have been pondering a question. I will put into a story which is in fact a real situation. There were 2 churches. Both were made up of people who loved our Lord Jesus. They built buildings about the same time right across the street from each other, within the last 20 years. Over time one congregation grew and added more services. I will call that  church A.  

The other congregation, I will call B, lost members as people went to be with the Lord.  Now church B realized that they needed to bring new people into their flock and continued to love the Lord and love people.  They prayed and prayed and decided to hire a new pastor who could help them.  The new pastor loved Jesus and served Him. He tried many many ways to increase the church including community outreach and summer camps for kids and so on, but nothing worked.  

After years of faithfulness and trying church B got down to about 5 families whereas church A continued to grow and their parking was filled to capacity every Sunday. Church B could no longer carry on so they let the pastor go and closed the doors.

Now here is the question I have been troubled by: Why did this happen? I am sure there are many reasons that we could cite  from a human perspective, and I know there are hundreds of books written and seminars given on how to build churches and attract people in this current age. That said, while all of these human efforts and plans that “increase numbers” using business models seem to work, it troubles me that the love and desire for Jesus isn’t enough.

When I read Scripture it tells me that if we ask, it will be given to us. I don’t see anywhere that God says that if you ask and use this business model, better worship band, or higher quantity treats and coffee, then I will give you what you ask by increasing your numbers.

So, bottom line, both congregations had pastors and church members who loved the Lord, prayed, and wanted to share Jesus with others.  Why wasn’t that enough? Again I know there many earthly reasons that we could rationalize, but I am more interested in why God let this happen when apparently all parties put their trust in Him.

I really appreciate your question, because two of the churches I served as a pastor  closed their doors—one while I was there, and the other some years after my pastorate. So as you can imagine, I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Here are some of my reflections.

An individual congregation is two things at once. It is, on the one hand, a local expression of the universal body of Christ, and as such it has all the resources of faith, prayer, and supernatural power at its disposal. But it is also, on the other hand, an earthly institution, and as such it is subject to all the vicissitudes of life here on earth.

Paul makes an interesting statement in his second letter to the Corinthians: “When I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, I found that the Lord had opened a door for me. But I still had no peace, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.” Presumably if Paul had stayed on in Troas and ministered, God would have accomplished remarkable things as he preached the gospel with that opening. But relationships still took priority. Paul needed to find Titus not just because he was a valuable ministry partner, but also to learn how things were going in their efforts to pursue reconciliation with the community of believers in Corinth.

We live in two worlds at once. Jesus himself warned us not to neglect the responsibilities of our relationships in this present age under the guise of promoting spiritual activity. If you have money that is needed to support your elderly parents, he admonished, don’t give it to the temple.

A woman joined one of the churches I served as pastor after moving to town to help her parents. She contributed a great deal to our ministry. But that also meant that her contributions were lost to the church she had attended in her previous city. We ourselves lost a member to another church in town when he started dating a woman who attended there. Eventually they got married and to this day they have an effective ministry partnership, much greater than either could have alone. But that came at the price of our church losing a valuable member. This kind of thing is inevitable as the church operates in our world of change and uncertainty. At one point we even had a wave of relocations as several young families had to move to find other work. This practically wiped out our Sunday school, through no fault of our own.

Beyond inevitable and unavoidable occurrences such as these, there are things that a church needs to do “right” if it wants to flourish. You can’t go out and make a lot of mistakes and then wonder why God hasn’t answered your prayers. For example, a church needs to “speak the language” of the people it wants to reach. Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “There are  many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning. But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” Don’t start an English-language service in a place where nobody speaks English if you expect anybody to come.

But this applies not just literally, but also figuratively in the sense of culture. You also have to make sure that the style, the music, the decor, and yes even the refreshments are welcoming and inviting to the people you want to reach. These aren’t a magic formula for church growth; I’ll take prayer over brand-name coffee any day. But it is nevertheless a biblical principle that we need to “speak a language” that will make the people we want to reach feel at home if we want them to make our church their home.

All of this said—and I think most people already recognize these things—the fact remains that local churches, as earthly institutions, are “mortal.” They have a life cycle. They are born, grow, and die. The average lifespan of a church is 125 years. Churches are started by people in their 20s and 30s who, by the time they reach their 40s and 50s, have gotten things just the way they want them. They don’t appreciate other people in their 20s and 30s coming in and telling them they should be doing things differently. So those younger people go elsewhere (they may start churches of their own), and the founders continue along until the church is ultimately closed down by their children in their elderly years. There are exceptions; some churches have had vibrant and faithful ministries for centuries. But if you study those churches, you discover that over and over again, somebody has effectively planted a new church right in the midst of the old one.

One rule for ministry within churches is, “New programs for new people.” Don’t try to plug a newcomer into a Bible study whose members have been together for fifteen years. Rather, start a new Bible study for them and several other newcomers. Analogously, people who look at the big picture are telling us we need “new churches for new people.” It has been estimated that the United States needs 350,000 new churches to reach all the people who would be interested but who wouldn’t feel that they fit in existing churches.

And even with that said, we need to acknowledge that 80% of new church plants don’t survive more than five years. (The average lifespan of a church is actually 125 years only if it makes it through the first five!) Even if the pastors and people who start these churches are being sincerely obedient to the leading of the Lord, those are the facts on the ground. So if you’ve been in that 80% (as I have), don’t feel that you’ve failed. You’ve been faithful. Because even if the local church doesn’t survive, its ministry endures.

A friend of mine was part of a new church plant. He just loved it. The experience of being part of it was very meaningful to him and he talks about it to this day. Nevertheless, when the people of this church ultimately faced the fact that they just couldn’t sustain operations, he was one of the members who voted to close it down. (Everyone else voted the same way, except the pastor. I totally understand that.) But my friend still talks about the quality of life and relationships in this church as a model he aspires to continue. He also talks about the sermons and all he learned from them. The ministry endures.

Relationships endure as well. The church I served whose Sunday school got wiped out eventually closed its doors some years after I was there. But many of the women who were members, even though they now attend a number of different churches all over town, still get together at regular intervals for fellowship. They formed a community that survives even though the church has ceased operations.

So this is the paradox of the local church. It is an earthly institution that is animated by the spiritual life of its identity as an expression of the universal body of Christ. These two dynamics are in constant interplay. Paul wrote to the Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.” I think we see that in the local church when things are at their best: The Spirit of Christ is giving life to the mortal institution.

Prayer is a necessary condition for this to happen, but it is not a sufficient condition. Rather, as the Bible also teaches us, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” In the end, on this earth, even when people of sincere faith and good will pray and obey and take due care to “speak the language,” a church may die rather than grow simply because time and chance happen to it. But as I have said, the ministry will endure, the fellowship will endure, and all who gave their efforts will hear as they stand before their Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Is it right to eat meat?

Q. I recently saw some videos of livestock being slaughtered for food, which left me feeling very upset, especially seeing how animals, like pigs, helplessly tremble with fear, crying desperately on their march to death. The videos were shared by people who are trying to make a point for why we should just eat vegetables or be vegans. As an animal lover, a dog owner and as someone who eats meat, I am feeling confused and guilty. I would like to know why God allows humans to consume animals. Or is it right to do so? As Christians, how should we view this issue?

Thank you for your heartfelt question, In light of it, it’s interesting to note that according to Genesis, humans were originally given “every green plant for food.” It was only after the flood that God said to Noah, “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” It’s also interesting to note how the Bible says that in the future, animals will not be carnivorous any more:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

Finally, we may also observe that humans are able to get all the nutrients they need, including proteins, by eating just plant-based foods.

And so it seems that, according to the Bible, people originally ate just plants, but for some reason (interpreters have different theories about why; the Bible doesn’t say specifically) people were also given animals as food after the flood. But things will change back to plant-based foods at some time in the future.

So I would say that if you wanted to abstain from eating meat as a matter of personal and Christian religious conviction, you would have a biblical basis to do that. Whatever you decided about that issue, you could certainly also advocate for the most humane treatment possible of animals that are used for food. Thank you again for your concern and compassion.

 

Why haven’t I received a spiritual gift like tongues or prophecy?

Q. I have been a believer for some time, and to the best of my ability I love our Lord with all of my heart, soul, and mind. I have prayed for years that the Holy Spirit would manifest in me and I would receive the gift of speaking in tongues, prophecy, or some other sign, but to date nothing like that has happened. Should I interpret this to mean that for some reason God hasn’t found favor with me, or that the Holy Spirit isn’t living in me? Or even, heaven forbid, that I am not saved? I desire to know God to the fullest, and I desire the deepest relationship with him possible.

Actually, I’m certain that you already have received a spiritual gift that evidences God’s favor upon you, the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life, and your salvation. This gift probably just isn’t manifesting itself in a public, declaratory way like prophecy or tongues (which, as I explain in this post, is the gift of speaking a language one has not formally acquired).

The reason I’m certain about this is that Scripture tells us clearly that “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Or, as another translation puts it, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” In other words, every single believer in Jesus is given a spiritual gift that they can use to build up the community of his followers. But because the needs are so great and varied, and because people have such diverse personalities, interests, concerns, and passions, the Holy Spirit distributes a wide range of gifts throughout the community, and these gifts don’t all look alike.

The statement I just quoted is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. When he first says this, he illustrates it by listing several high-profile gifts such as you’re asking about—prophecy, tongues, miracles, healing, discernment of spirits, words of wisdom and knowledge, etc. These are most likely the kinds of gifts that the Corinthians valued and wanted to have. But Paul then proceeds to explain how the whole point of the gifts is to build up the body, and that a wide range of gifts is needed for this, so everyone shouldn’t want just this one kind of gift; they should seek to discover and welcome whatever gift God actually has given them.

In fact, as Paul concludes this discussion, he offers another list of gifts, and while it includes some of the ones he named earlier, such as prophecy, miracles, and healing, he now also mentions things like teaching, helping, and administration. In Romans, after explaining similarly that “we have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us,” Paul mentions further gifts such as serving, encouraging, giving, and showing mercy. These are quiet, background gifts, but they are just as essential to bringing blessing throughout the community of Jesus’ followers and to people who are not yet part of that community.

Indeed, I once heard someone say, perfectly seriously, that the person with the gift of prophecy stands up and says, “Thus says the Lord, I have set before you an open door that will lead to a great expansion of this ministry,” and the person with the gift of administration responds, “In that case, we’d better buy another filing cabinet”—and both are just as spiritual.

So I would encourage you to consider in what ways God has already been using you to bless and help others, and to recognize what gifts God must have given you to make this possible. As you consider this, one gift may stand out, or you may discern a cluster of related gifts. In any event, I hope you will recognize that this indeed means that you are saved, the Holy Spirit is living in you, and God has shown you his favor. These are all good things, and I commend you for desiring to be reassured about them, in the context of knowing God to the fullest and having the deepest possible relationship with him, by identifying a spiritual gift you have received.

But beyond this, please recognize that the essential purpose of God giving us spiritual gifts is “for the common good” or “so we can help each other.” So with your new assurance of God’s love and favor, and your new recognition of the gifts God has given you, put those gifts to use to build up the body of Christ and spread the good news about Jesus. As another version translates Paul’s words in Romans, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.”

Do Christians who die await the return of Christ before going to heaven?

Q. What happens to Christians when we die? Do we wait for the return of Christ before we are taken to heaven? This scripture is what prompted me to ask the question: “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

Also, is it by default that as Christians we would be spared from hell if we believe in our God and that Jesus died for our sins and we pray for forgiveness and forgive the others? Or would we be vetted further?

In answer to your first question, I’d invite you to read the following post, which I wrote in response to a different but similar question and which I believe will address your concern:

Do the souls of believers “sleep” after death until the resurrection?

In that post I say that “all things considered, my overall sense from the Bible is that the soul of a believer does pass directly and consciously into the presence of God upon death.” However, I acknowledge that this is “a question on which people of good will who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures have long disagreed. So we each need to be ‘fully convinced in our own minds’ but respectful of the other position.”

In answer to your second question, there’s another post on this blog that I can recommend. It, too, was written in response to a different but similar question, and I think it will speak to your own question:

Are we saved simply by believing, or are there works we need to demonstrate?

In that post I conclude that “if we claim to have been saved by trusting and believing in what Jesus did for us, we should reasonably expect that salvation to manifest itself in ‘works,’ not things we do to earn or secure our salvation, but things that flow naturally from it.” We will not necessarily be “vetted” by such things, but they do give us the opportunity to “vet” ourselves and confirm that the fruits of salvation are appearing in our lives.

I share some similar thoughts in this further post:

Don’t our works actually matter to God?

There I observe: “I think the simplest way to summarize the New Testament position on this subject is to explain that while it doesn’t teach we are saved by works, it does teach we are saved for works. That is, God has saved us so that we will be able to live in the way He has designed.” Once again, seeing these results in our lives can give us greater assurance of salvation, which is what I believe you are asking about.

I hope these leads are helpful to you.

How can we “esteem others” who aren’t living as they should?

Q. Paul writes in Philippians, “Let each esteem others better than themselves.” My question is, how can a born-again Christian esteem other members of the church when the majority seem to live like non-believers? They attend church on a regular basis, attend Bible class, and sing in the choir, but you know for a fact they are living like non-believers. Smoking, drinking, partying, going to clubs, gambling, using foul language, etc. If they are not doing these things, they still don’t seem to be living a Christian lifestyle. They never talk about the Lord, read their Bibles, witness to anyone, etc. They are just good church attenders. How can one esteem these people better than themselves?

God sees us not as we are now, but as the best we can be. And God relates to us that way as well—never giving up on us, always believing in us, forgiving us and giving us second chances.

I think Paul’s admonition in Philippians is an invitation for us to relate to our fellow Christians in this same way. Certainly if we saw others through God’s eyes, as the best they could be, and if we believed in them as God believes in them, we would have no trouble esteeming them as better than ourselves, recognizing the many ways in which we personally fall short.

Often Christians who are struggling just need a fellow Christian to come alongside them, encourage them, and believe in them. This is difficult for us to do when we regard others with human eyes, but if we ask God to give us a glimpse of them as He sees them, as their Creator, we will have a whole new perspective.

It’s great that you’re taking this admonition to heart and asking how you can live it out. I suggest that you start maybe with one person in your church and ask God to help you see them as He sees them. I believe this will have a revolutionary effect not only on your attitude and perspective towards that person, but on the influence you will have in their life. You’ll likely want to pray this for more and more people in your church as you see what God does in you and through you.

What does the Bible say about cleansing your chakras?

Q. What does the Bible say about cleansing your chakras or anything similar to that practice, if anything?

I’ll have to admit that I wasn’t really familiar with the practice of cleansing the “chakras.” I did an Internet search to find out more about it, and they are apparently considered, in the Hindu tradition, to be centers of energy in the body. But I also found many other people asking the same question you’re asking, and I particularly liked an answer that was given on Quora.com to the question, “Do meditation and belief in Chakras conflict with Christianity?” Here was the response from someone named Gavin Hurlimann:

“The Bible is silent about chakras because they are part of the inner tradition of Indian religion. Meditation however, is 100% encouraged by the Bible—as long as you meditate on what is good, acceptable & pleasing to the perfect will of God. The great King David said in Psalms, ‘I will also meditate on all Your good work, and talk of Your good deeds.'”

I think that answer put it very well, so I hope it is helpful to you.

 

Why should we recycle plastics if Jesus is coming back soon?

Q. A Christian friend of mine goes to a lot of trouble to recycle plastics because, he says, he doesn’t want them “sitting in a landfill for centuries.” But wouldn’t Jesus have come back long before then?

Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven, his followers have had the lively expectation that he could return at any time, and they have been right to have that expectation. But where would we be today if people living many centuries ago had said, “It’s all right if we do things that could permanently damage the environment, because Jesus could return at any time”? In the same way, we need to be concerned about the generations that will come after us if Jesus doesn’t return soon.

Beyond that, we express our faith in what we believe Jesus will do when he returns by the way we live as we are expecting him. Under the reign of Jesus, the physical creation will be healthy and beautiful. And because we believe that, we should everything we can to help it be as healthy and beautiful as possible even now. Otherwise, Jesus would have every right to ask us, “If you knew that this was what I was going to do when I came back, why didn’t you get started on it while you were waiting for me?”

When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” That means, among other things, “Lord Jesus, please come back soon and deliver this world from everything that’s wrong with it.” I personally hope that Jesus will answer that prayer and come back very soon. But whether it’s ultimately a long time or a short time, we should be cooperating now with what we recognize his program will be when he does return.