I am visiting in an area that 20 years ago was a “must visit” for preachers seeking support—there were many large churches that had the money and the mind to support preachers in other places. But as always happens over time, the situation has changed—a great deal and not for the better.
Of the churches that were here in the 80’s probably 1/3 have either ceased to exist or have merged with another struggling church just to barely survive—buildings that would hold 200 now have 15-25. Half of the churches have shrunk to the point that they are unable to provide outside support, some of them barely paying their bills. Of course there are some that have not only grown but are thriving. What happened to the “church” in this area? I would never claim to know all the answers but there are some things I have observed.
1) Many brethren retired and moved to smaller towns. This has been the salvation of some of the smaller churches in these towns—churches that were on the verge of dying are now prospering with good elders, young couples with their children and have grown to the point that they can offer outside support. To be sure they don’t have the money that the bigger churches used to, but part of the reason the big churches are no longer big is that many brethren have shifted to other locations. They are still as active as they used to be, (health permitting) they are just more scattered out.
2) Other churches were in neighborhoods that became “bad”. Some of them had the foresight to relocate to other areas and most of those are doing well. Some of them sat there lamenting what was happening, but doing nothing about it—these were the ones that have already ceased to exist or will shortly, even though they merged with another struggling church.
3) But something common to all those that ceased to exist or that have dramatically shrunk is that little personal work was done. The truth was preached (and still is in those that still exist) and if anyone showed up at the church building wanting to study the Bible they studied with them. I visited several of them in the late 80’s & 90’s and the preaching/teaching was good, the contribution was good, but the median age was around 70. Their children had moved out to other areas are left the faith, leaving the now elderly alone. With the young people leaving for jobs etc. and no one being converted the end of these churches was only a matter of time—it was when would they die, not if.
4) Among some of the largest churches there was an attitude of contentment—they had a nice building, good, well known preacher, and money to not only pay their bills but do a lot of outside support. If they didn’t grow, they at least maintained themselves, as people moved in from other areas, or even other churches. Again there was little effort to reach out to the lost at home—“they won’t listen”, “nobody cares anymore”, or “it never works”. Yet with the death or move of a few key members these churches are now mere shadows of themselves.
My point in writing this is not to lament “what used to be” (Eccl. 7:10), nor to condemn these brethren but rather to ask, “What can we learn from this?” Brethren, the secret to not only church growth, but even church maintenance is simple: Proactive leadership that looks to the future. Without concerted efforts to reach the lost a church will eventually die. The experts say that a church must grow by 10 % a year just to break even—to replace those who move, fall away, or die. But such efforts will either not ever happen or will be spasmodic without effective leadership. God’s ideal is that there should be elders in every church, but even where there are no elders there must be leaders. Are you willing to be a part of that leadership, knowing that it will require you to serve others more than you’ve ever served before? Young men, you need to prepare yourself to serve as an elder at some point in time. Both men and women of any age can lead—not necessarily as elders, or even preachers, but you can stand up and encourage others to do what’s right. You can keep things going.
What happened to the church? The same thing that has always happened where there is a lack of leadership and planning for the future. Let us learn from these things so we won’t repeat them.