There are a lot of dying churches out there. Some of them deserve to die, because their pastors are charlatans, or inept, or incompetent, or unregenerate, or hateful – maybe all of the above. But, some of these churches are dying because they’re living in the past.
These churches are filled with older members (the younger ones fled long ago). These good folks remember the glory days, usually back when Nixon, Ford or Reagan (or perhaps Bush #1) was in office. The pews were filled, children ran in the aisles, Vacation Bible School was a big event, and things were happening!
Now . . . well, things are different.
Everybody in the congregation has white or gray hair. Many of those children are gone. Some have remained, now in their fifties and above – forlorn and melancholy about what once was. The pews are empty. The sermons grow more and more pitiful and desperate with each passing Sunday. Everybody knows the church is dying. An air of sadness pervades the congregation, an aura of inevitable doom. Rooms are closed off; nobody has used them in years. The last time you had a visitor was that one Thanksgiving . . . was it last year, or the year before?
These churches often live in the past. They revel in it. If only they could recapture those glory days. Springsteen could have been singing about them. Maybe he was.
Churches like this will probably die. It’s common in churchy circles to double down on failure, to spiritualize it and claim you’re “suffering for the Lord.” But of course you are. Nobody can whitewash failure quite like a Christian.
Thom Rainer, in his outstanding book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, wrote about this kind of dying church:
The most pervasive and common thread of our autopsies was that the deceased churches lived for a long time with the past as hero. They held on more tightly with each progressive year. They often clung to things of the past with desperation and fear. And when any internal or external force tried to change the past, they responded with anger and resolution: “We will die before we change.” And they did.
Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2014; Kindle ed. ), KL 161-164.