CHURCH DECLINE: NOT JUST ABOUT PASTORS
I read Matt Walsh’s article, Dear Churches, You are Killing Yourselves and Here is how. I agree with the article. He points to a lack of biblical preaching in today’s pulpits and that is certainly true. There are denominations where it is doubtful you will hear anything that reflects biblical preaching. In some churches, the pastor is simply unskilled and he preaches what he thinks is currently important in culture.
I have been in the ministry and preaching for 44 years, which means it is easy to write me off as a grumpy old man. Being a pastor is hard work under any condition. As a young man, I had to learn how to read and understand the Bible and then how to preach it cogently, clearly, and concisely. The old maxim still applies, KISS–keep it short stupid. There are some in the ministry who have yet to acquire the skills needed. I preached expository sermons by preaching through books of the Bible. It kept me from chasing rabbits in the fields of my adventurous opinions. A pastor should understand his world and understand what Scripture has to say. The most important part is to understand Scripture. The Bible, properly understood is always relevant to our world.
But having said this, we need to understand that the roll of the pastor in the decline of the church is probably a small one. There are several issues that I think play a greater role in church decline. It might be true that we got in this shape because of the lack of pastoral leadership, but I think there is a lot more going on. Here I list three.
The first issue is that churches have forgotten who they are.
Churches are supernatural institutions. The church was founded by Jesus and it belongs to him. The head of the church is Jesus. Most modern churches do not see themselves as a supernatural entity at all. Rather, as secular people. Church members see the church as a social organization or a business. Churches and their leadership want to run the church in a secular, businesslike fashion. They no longer “call” pastors. They “hire” them. The Bible speaks to the issue of the hiring vs a shepherd. Churches make a show of praying for leadership when it comes time to call a pastor, but the normal criterion is usually secular in nature. Rarely is it on their minds the question, is the candidate biblically qualified, to be the pastor of their church.
In this secular view, where the pastor is hired, the church thinks it has the right to tell the pastor how to preach, what to preach, and how to lead. The last thing modern churches want to do is follow the pastor. The church is supposed to be lead by the Holy Spirit to do the work of the church. God himself chose what the leadership structure (including the pastor) should be. Rarely will you find this being a main consideration of a lot of churches.
If the church wants to stop the decline, they must first remember who they are. The church is established by Christ and belongs to him. God has appointed leaders to lead. Follow that leader. God has given his holy Spirit to lead both pastor and church and to equip it with what is needed to be a church. Stop worrying about what society thinks a church ought to be, and be the church that God called you to be.
The second problem is the formal leadership of the church.
For whatever reason, most churches will degenerate into some sort of power struggle among church members. You always have insiders who get their way and the rest have to sit back and watch. I am a Baptist and the normal structure of a Baptist church is built around deacons. Deacons, are the most destructive force in Baptist life. In a recent conversation with a pastor friend, he said that he is hearing more often about the problem of deacons harming a church. If you see a Baptist church in decline, and most are, look first at the deacons.
It is a rare thing to find deacons operating as Biblical deacons. You can apply this to almost any denomination you want. I have Presbyterian friends who see the same problems among their elders, though elders and deacons are not the same.
Let’s face it, deacons, like pastors, are fallible, sinful human beings. And we all stumble. But many of our problems would be solved if we simply followed the Bible. In the Bible, the deacon is a servant and I think the title Deacon should be revised to Servant if want to keep a biblical perspective. In the Bible, there are only three roles listed for the deacon: taking care of the needy, evangelism, and martyrdom. If the deacons of the church are not fulfilling these roles, they should not be deacons. How many deacons, win the lost and bring people to church? How many do you think are willing to die for the church, or at least use their time for church work? Deacons are not the board of directors of the church. They do not run it, or supervise the pastor and staff. In some denominations, the elders will have this role but even then, their role is limited by larger structures that keep the secular man in check
Deacons are supposed to have the same moral and spiritual requirements as that described for the pastor. Yet churches overlook the moral character of deacons. In my younger days, I thought that a divorced deacon could still serve a church. Experience taught me that almost all of them carry so much baggage that they never serve well. But worse, many deacons are adulterous, some having multiple affairs. Some deacons become known for their crooked business deals or their nasty attitude. I have been told by deacons that “church is church and business is business.” In other words, church does not interfere with business practices. I cannot tell you how many people left the church because of deacons. They run the church, even in a church with congregational policy. Some people know about their adulterous behavior or how they treated their wife and family. Some see the moral lapses and could not reconcile that they are church leadership. Certainly, church should be the place where sinners come to find God and find forgiveness of sin. But when the leadership does not reflect a new life in Christ, how can any sinner or saint find that environment to be conducive for worship and spiritual support?
I cannot speak for Presbyterians, Methodists or any other denomination, but I would imagine that they have the same problem with their formal leadership. And the same problems elicit the same responses from people who attend. The results are detrimental to the church. Why should anyone attend any church, whose standards are no higher than common culture? I am not talking about where a person was in the past. All of us are sinners saved by grace and God is continually at work making us into the image of Christ. But leadership should, in the present, display godliness as a sure sign that God is at work in them. They should be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20 ESV) And this statement of fact should be evident in every church leader. They should be on fire with the Holy Spirit. They should be the ones who put serving Christ above everything else, including job, recreation, and even family. Anything less and those men should never serve or be followed. Baptist churches seem to think they must have deacons. Churches would be far better off with no deacons at all than to have unworthy men serving. I am not sure that other denominational churches are free to make that kind of decision but Baptist churches can. There are no formal structures that say how many deacons a church should have or if they must have them at all.
I don’t mean to say that every deacon is as I have described. But if a church is in decline, as most Baptist churches are, then look at the quality of deacons.
The third issue, the weakness of church members.
Churches have adopted a passive attitude regarding their responsibility in the Kingdom of God. Churches “hire” pastors to grow the church and if the church does not grow, it’s the pastor’s fault. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 4 that the pastor was given to the church as a gift “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Eph. 4:12-13 ESV) You need to read the entire passage to see how vital this is. The church has work to do. Every member of the Body of Christ is called to be a witness, to be a mature, faithful Christian. All one has to do is scan Facebook and see the disjointed lives of those who claim to follow Christ. Bad theology, immoral behavior, even bragging about their immorality, are often expressions of Christians. They gossip, run down others, destroy the reputation of others, including pastors. I had reports for 27 years of persons running me down in any public place where they could get an audience. I saw it as a badge of achievement that I was the subject of such abuse, but what effect did it have on others who should have been in church but were not because of people like them?
The church is a supernatural organization that will last forever, even into God’s promised eternity. The church is made up of supernatural beings, who have been redeemed and made new by the blood of Christ. When church members live less than the sacrificial life of love and grace, then they destroy the church that God has built. Is it because the members are not redeemed Christians? Perhaps in some cases that is true. Certainly, it is true that the first church had its own problems with misbehaving Christians. So, we have to assume that many are simply wayward in their actions. But some churches need to examine themselves because they are life destroying places, destroying pastors and their families, destroying new Christians who need nurture, destroying their place as a good neighbor in society, and destroying their witness to the world. Can a church like that not decline? No wonder most churches are in steep decline! There are an increased number of churches that are closing their doors forever because they cannot even pay their light bill.
Churches do not ask nonmembers to support their church. But church members have a responsibility to support the church with their time, talent, and money. The church is a volunteer organization and if you do not want to do the work of God, then leave. Go sulk with the rest of the world about how all the churches want is your money. But a Christian, who loves Christ, will love his church and support it. They will be active and bear witness to the Glory of God. They will use their time and talent to do the work of the church because they know that all of their time and talent and money belongs to God. They will use that small part of their income that they give to support their work as the church. It is their church in that sense and it is their work that they are supporting.
There is no place for the haughty and the arrogant in the Body of Christ. We are all failures, all sinners who need to be saved through the blood of Christ. Our response to God should be gratitude and joy and a fruitful Christian life–a life that shares joy, hope, and love with others. Instead, churches have become closed systems where church member comfort is more important than winning the lost and the unchurched. We are not welcoming. We always treat new people as outsiders. We ooze with rejection of those outside our circle so that many looking for a church home, leave and never return. One day we will all give an accounting of our lives before God. We all hope to hear ourselves called a “good and faithful servant.” But I doubt that is going to happen to the churches in this moment in history. Today’s church destroys the souls of others. Today’s church is so culturally compromised that what the church offers can be found in better quality outside the church at bars and nightclubs and just hanging out at the street corner. What the church should be offering is Jesus, the God who became flesh for the purpose of dying as our sacrifice to made atonement for our sins. But the church usually does not offer Jesus, not in behavior, nor grace, love, and life. The living Christ is nowhere to be found in many churches.
We are all sinners. We all need redemption. Church people are no better than nonchurch people. We have no reason to be arrogant about out status before God. We need to share with other sinners how they can find forgiveness and love through Jesus. But we can’t do that if our lives are a contradiction to our words. But if you live a God-honoring life, God will send you people, who need to hear your witness.
There it is. What do we do now?
It is not just pastors who are responsible for the decline of the church. It is not the secular world or the government or atheists or anyone else. It is the fault of all of us who call ourselves Christians. We pastors must be committed to preaching biblical truth. We need to be committed to speak prophetically, warning the church, calling for a return to God. We need to risk it all, including being willing to be fired (to use a secular term) for preaching the Bible. Such acts tell you exactly what kind of people make up a church. There are biblical reasons for removing a pastor but age and faithfulness to Christ is not among them. There is no excuse for the excessive removal of pastors that we see in today’s churches.
I have sat and listened to young pastors whose minds were broken by the disobedience of churches. They were in psychological treatment, some on medication, and wondering if they would ever be able to serve in a church again. These young men entered the ministry with great idealism and enthusiasm about serving God’s people and ministering in a city or community sharing the love of Christ. They are destroyed when they find out that many churches are dens of iniquity, unimaginably sinful and evil to their core.
Many Churches have become cesspools of corruption instead of the grace-filled body of Christ. While we lament the decline of the church, some of these churches need to decline and cease to exist for the benefit of the Gospel and to remove the harm and damage they do the reputation to God. Decline in many churches is an act of judgment from God. There are some churches that decline because of sociology such as a dwindling population. But some churches decline because they do not want to reach their community, which has changed and no longer looks like them. Most decline because of abject, long term sin in the church and God brings his judgment against them. If the world wants to see the supernatural power of God at work, just look at the destruction of modern churches.
What should we do? The answer lies in a word that most modern people hate, repentance. We hate that word because it means we are wrong. We must admit that we are sinners, and that we are like little gods unto ourselves. We want to do exactly as we want. Don’t you realize that either you are filled with and lead by the Holy Spirit or you are filled with the spirit of the age and you have fallen back on the old, sinful nature from which you are redeemed? We are called to repent and to sweep our hearts clean and give God full reign over our lives. We must spend enormous time in prayer and repentance seeking to root out any darkness that is in us. We must ask God to show us hidden sinful attitudes and ways of thinking. We may not realize how haughty or arrogant we are. We may not know how bitter or hateful we are. We need to seek God until we understand exactly who we are and what needs to be changed. The Holy Spirit will make these things clear to us so that we might repent.
It is a constant struggle. Repentance is a daily act. But today’s church must come to understand its destructive behavior that it has practiced against God, its pastors, the people of God, and the world. Modern churches, particularly western churches and especially American churches, are an offense to God. The only posture we can take is one of humble contrition, asking God to forgive us. We must understand that God is under no obligation to forgive us. Forgiveness is something that we cannot demand. I hope that we are not too far gone or that God has passed his irrevocable judgment against us.
Isaiah chapter one, speaks to a people, who had spent generations sinning against God. Sinful practices were passed on the next generation. By the time that Isaiah the Prophet speaks, they think their sin is perfectly normal and could not understand why God rejected them. They never changed, the very meaning of the word repentance, and God judged them. He rejected their worship. He even rejected their prayers.
Let us stop now. Don’t poison another generation of the church. If you are not willing to repent and change, at least have the decency to disband as a church so that you no longer incur God’s wrath and judgment and cease to spread your evil to the next generation. Otherwise, let us repent and seek our God, ask him for his forgiveness and correction. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” (Isa. 1:18 ESV)