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Some Churches Should Die and Stay Dead

Some Churches Should Die and Stay Dead

Sometimes churches die, and sometimes they should.

As shocking as this may be, the death of a church might be the best thing that could happen for the sake of the gospel within a given community.

Churches are not meant to be mere holding tanks for folks who remember “the good old days,” and if they cannot or will not fulfill their purpose, they don’t need to exist.

Don’t misread me here. Not every struggling church needs to die. Some churches go through rough spots and come out stronger on the other side.

Many that appear to be in their winter years can be revitalized and become effective again through leadership changes or, more likely, through a powerful move of God that stirs their affections and motivates them to love and good deeds. Revitalization happens and should happen more.

Many struggling churches in their twilight years, however, face issues that may have a chokehold on them spiritually, financially and/or relationally. In these cases, it may be best to, as graciously as possible, close the doors.

Many churches just need to close. And for many that feels like a failure.

What if Death and Replanting are Connected?

But what if, instead of merely closing the doors and walking away, there was another way? What if there could be a changing of the guard? What if, in the fertile composting soil of the dead church, a new, healthier church could be birthed to pick up the mantle of gospel work the first had begun?

Replanting is a healthy approach to dealing with a dying congregation, and it should be considered as churches find themselves facing death. I’ve written on replanting before here, but today I’d like to quickly discuss what healthy replanting might look like, since it’s becoming a more common practice.

Keep in mind that much of what follows will need to be worked out well in advance before a replant actually happens. Replanting does not happen overnight—at least healthy replanting doesn’t.

Don’t try to force it, but do consider pursuing it.

Here are some short ideas.

First, Create a New Identity.

A new church will need a new identity so the community will know it’s a new church. You see, they’ve already decided the old church was not for them. They may decide the same thing about the new church. However, a new identity is a new opportunity for engagement.

Also, those who come to the replanted church also need to know that they are part of something new.

If you’ll allow me to get a little biblical: You can’t put new wine in an old wineskin.

There must be definitive and purposeful separation between the old and the new. As a general rule, I would say that anything having to do with the former congregation—except the building—needs to be begin anew, even if only for a time.

The new church will be moving in a different direction, doing different things and, hopefully, seeing different results. Continuing with the same name, though it could have some historical significance in the area, will add baggage to an already difficult proposition.Developing a new identity starts with a new name. And a new pastor coming into the area who will have a vision for reaching the community. (If there is no new vision, what’s the point of closing anyway?)

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible story. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church.