My latest book is about churches that died. In Autopsy of a Deceased Church, I wrote about issues that led to the demise of several congregations. Recently, however, I wrote a blog post about churches that have dreamed again. These congregations experienced dramatic reversals, from decline to vibrant health. In that post, I asked leaders of churches to share with me stories about churches that have dreamed again. I was amazed and overwhelmed at the responses.
From Near Death to Health
As I read about these churches, and even watched some videos about their stories, I was reminded again of how God often does a great work of revitalization. Among the most amazing stories were those of churches that were truly near death. The members were on the precipice of deciding to close the doors.
Instead of closing the doors, however, the churches went in the opposite direction. They became vibrant congregations of hope and growth.
Looking for Patterns
I isolated those stories of “near death” churches to see if I could discover common patterns. Although no two churches were identical, they did take similar paths.
Keep in mind that these are not just churches that moved from slight decline or steady decline to growth. These are the churches that were just a few months away from closing their doors. Today they are alive and well.
What are the common paths they followed? I found at least five.
- All of these churches had sudden negative events that exacerbated their declines. That event was often connected with a pastor. In some of the churches the pastor had a moral failure. In other churches, the pastor left suddenly and unexpectedly, often at a critical time in the life of the church.
- Each of the “near death” churches had a significant exodus of members who resisted change. At the time of their departures, the exodus was seen as a very negative occurrence. In hindsight, it became viewed as a blessing.
- A remnant of the membership began gathering together for fervent prayer. One church member noted, “We were so desperate that all we had left was prayer.” That prayer gathering became the beginning of a new dream in the congregation.
- The membership remnant made a commitment to God to sacrifice whatever He asked and to do whatever He asked. The members thus let go of the idols of their perception of “how we do church” and became open to new directions and new ideas.
- The church became outwardly obsessed to reach and minister to their community. One member said it well: “We became determined in the power of God to discover what it would take to be Christ in the community. We had never asked that question before.”
Not the Typical Path
Remember that these churches represented a subset of churches that dreamed again. These congregations were among those that almost died. Their future longevity could be measured in months rather than years.
Most of the “dream again” churches did not get that close to the death. They began to experience renewal long before their demise became a foregone conclusion.
Most churches that die experience gradual erosion. The congregation thus rarely sees the need to change. And so the congregation slowly moves toward death.
The irony of the “near death” churches is that the sudden negative event actually was used by God to give the congregation a sorely needed wake up call.
Sometimes we all need a wakeup call. Churches too.
Please keep sharing your stories and comments with me. I am inspired. And as a result, other congregations are inspired as well.