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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Death Rattle of a Church

I got something of a surprise in the mail the other day. It was a letter from the pastor and a "commitment card," something the church leadership is hoping the membership will fill out and return shortly so they can plan financing for next year.

I am not trying to be negative. There is nothing unbiblical about it, that is, there's no prohibition of such things in scripture. On the other hand, there's no example of it in scripture, either.

I see it as a very bad sign, the death rattle, really, of a church that will soon either change drastically or cease to exist. I write about it only because I guarantee you that unless you live in a demographically-blessed part of the country, there are churches around you--Southern Baptist churches, anyway--in very similar shape.

You see, this church was once packed to the gills, but over the years, the city grew, the 'burbs got farther away, and now, pretty much the only people left are older people who still live in the area (and are, obviously, much closer to dying off) and a few people buying "starter homes" in the area, and the children of the older folks who, for some reason, are still going to this church in spite of the fact that they live much closer to some other church.

You'll say, if you're a typical Southern Baptist, "Evangelize!" and I would agree, except that "evangelism" as the SBC has been doing it for decades MOSTLY hasn't worked. The Fall Festivals produce few visitors (after Hallowe'en), same with the Christmas musicals, the Easter services, and so forth, and ALL of these are touted as "outreach" tools. All touted as outreach tools, but they have, decade after decade, either not been successful at all or only marginally.

"Visitation!" you will cry next, and I would agree, except that "I've been there and done that," as they say, and you will not like to hear this, but in my opinion, you are most likely doing it wrong. You see, most churches, if they HAVE a visitation program (one for outreach/evangelism as opposed to visiting shut-ins) INSIST on visiting lapsed members first, then people who have visited the church (often as the result of a Fall Festival or Christmas musical or Easter service...), and then, and ONLY then, will they knock on strangers' doors. Actually, forget that. They never knock on strangers' doors.

Not a lick of this does any good. They are either ignoring or have never realized a fundamental truth. You won't believe me at first, but ask your church buddies, one at a time, and see what they tell you.

That fundamental truth is that most people are not brought to Christ by a revival, or a Billy Graham or Franklin Graham crusade, or an "outreach event," or a visit after they've been out of church for six years, or even evangelistic tracts. Oh, sure, you will find some. You cannot sow a thousand seeds without producing an occasional turnip. But MOST people, friends, MOST people who are brought to Christ are brought to Christ through the testimony and influence of someone they know, a friend or a relative.

Ask around. It is the truth. Receive it and believe it.

What does that have to do with a local church dying? Just this: most people, if they could, prefer to go to a church in their area--about three miles or less from their home, actually. Which means that if a church is to grow, or at least avoid death, and most people in the church hear about Christ from friends or relatives, the people in that church HAVE TO KNOW PEOPLE WITHIN ABOUT THREE MILES OF THE CHURCH. If they don't, the church will slowly die off.

This is exactly what is happening in our church. It is amazing to watch, for no one seems to "get it." We have a Hispanic congregation that meets in our building. I know some of the members fairly well. Their congregation has doubled or more in the last six months. I asked one of them this morning, "Where do most of your people live? Within three miles or so of here?" He thought about it and then answered in the affirmative.

That, friends, is it. As the neighborhood ages, as the Anglos move out into the 'burbs or die, the Hispanic immigrants are moving in. We don't know them, but the members of the Hispanic church do. The results are predictable. We are dying, they are growing.

And as long as we are dying, friends, church revenues are going to go down, even when or if the economy recovers. There is nothing you can do about that. "Commitment cards" simply do not address the problem. Their very existence demonstrates that people either do not know what the problem is or are unwilling to face up to the problem. That is why I termed it the "death rattle" of the church.

The problem is lack of people. That always leads to lack of money. It is very simple. Church giving, on average, is always about three percent, despite much very misleading preaching on the "tenth," or "tithe." ("Tithe" does mean "tenth." It is not a synonym for "regular gift.") This is consistently true. The answer to church financing, in practical terms, is never to get the members to give more. History demonstrates that this never lasts (even if it gets started). The answer is to have more people--and in our case, that means, if we are smart, merging with the Hispanic church.

'Cause if we don't, you can bet your bottom dollar that in less than ten years, what's left of our congregation will be selling them our building.

Just my two cents. A one-draft diagnosis and glimpse into the future. No offense intended, just bluntness.

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