Seven Aspects of a Dying Church (Rainer)

We pastors read a lot of books on the church.  Oh, the amount of books on how to do church.  It’s overwhelming to the point of madness.  Of course, we realize that the primary book to tell us how to do church is the Scriptures.  It’s not even close. 

Church has become complicated.  But it doesn’t have to be.  How do we start looking at how a church is?  The first is to identify reality.

Thom Rainer and Sam Rainer published a book in 2008 called Essential Church?  –a book that deals with why 17-19 year olds are dropping out of church.  As the title implies, the church is not an essential part of their life.  Their faith and the life of the church do not connect. 

In their research, they identified the seven aspects of a dying church as part of a conversation they had with a number of folks who have dropped out of church.  The list may surprise you:

  1. Doctrine dilution.  “Watering down the Scripture is not the answer to reaching a younger generation.  They do not want to be mollycoddled with tough doctrinal truths.”
  2. Loss of evangelistic passion.  “Dying churches stop speaking about Christ to the world.  Evangelistic fervor becomes apathetic disinterest in a lost world.”
  3. Failure to be relevant.  “The church, however, must find ways to relay this gospel message to the culture around them.  The church in a farming community in Indiana should relate differently from the church in a suburb of Vancouver. . . . Churches that keep their internal culture unchanged for fifty years while the world around them goes through continual periods of metamorphosis typically die with that old culture.  Churches that ask the question, ‘How can we best relate the unchanging gospel to the shifting culture around us?’ are one step closer to relevancy and reaching a new generation.
  4. Few outwardly focused ministries.  “Essential churches think outward into the surrounding communities and into the world earnestly seeking ways to win the next soul for Jesus.”
  5. Conflict over personal preferences.  “People in the church can squabble over the most insignificant things.  And these internal conflicts smother a church.  These quibbles overshadow the true purpose of the church.  Essential churches grasp the primacy of the gospel.  Languishing churches are mired in conflict over paltriness.”
  6. The priority of comfort.  “Dying churches … do nothing outside the bounds of their comfort levels.  … But the “way we’ve always done it” will not pass muster if the American church is to thrive.  Churches that flourish get outside comfort zones and reach into areas uncharted for them.”
  7. Biblical illiteracy.  “One of the major sins of a dying church is neglect of theological teaching.  If a church member does not understand the basics of Scripture, then they are hampered in their witness.  Those who do not comprehend the Scriptures will also have trouble remaining obedient.”

(Thom Rainer and Sam Rainer, Essential Churches?  pp. 16-19). 

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2 thoughts on “Seven Aspects of a Dying Church (Rainer)

  1. Great title and interesting post!

    I think that this list is a good starting point.

    It would be helpful to define a dying congregation. What constitutes dying? Is it simply a numbers game where more people are leaving the church than staying or joining? Most books on this topic focus on this issue as the main point.

    We know from Jesus’s own mouth that a church can seem to be alive and yet be dead. Sardis had a reputation as a church that was alive. In today’s church culture, I often envision Sardis as the large mega church with the best band the most exciting services.

    Jesus said:

    “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.”

    It would seem that their problem revolved around how the people of the congregation were living their lives, not how many people were a part of the congregation. So I think something like that should be on the list, perhaps at #1

    #1 Congregational Apathy. Dying churches are populated by a large percentage of people who merely listen to the Word but do not practice it on a regular and consistent basis.

    You said:

    “Of course, we realize that the primary book to tell us how to do church is the Scriptures. It’s not even close. ”

    Really? What are these scriptural instructions? When it comes to how to do church, most of us pastors do what we think will work. The scriptures are used as proof texts for whatever model we choose.

    If that wasn’t the case, all of our evangelical services and models would be very similar, as in the case of the Catholic and Orthodox wing of the church. But it isn’t. We believe that we are free to do whatever we want, as long as it doesn’t violate a clear teaching of scripture.

    If most of us were honest with ourselves, we would confess that the books we read on how to do church are our primary sources for how to do church. Where do we turn to when we are coming up with a new approach for our church? We read a book, attend a conference and then check the scriptures to make sure it is ok. The Willow Creek and / or Saddleback model of church is not in the Bible, at least not in the one I read.

  2. Ginger LeBlanc

    Thank you for this post. I like simple church. I like the accountability of this “check-list”. I like the challenge it gives me to search my own heart and thoughts about whether I’m joining God in His purpose and plan for ARBC.

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