Why Churches Wither and Die

I once served as the interim pastor for a small church. This church could seat 400, but only 40 came. They’d fired their last three pastors and had changed very little for 40 years. The church had been declining since its peak in 1965, and the average age of the congregation was over 70. They were bearing no fruit, and they were dying a slow death. Their “hope” was the money they had in the bank. They had over one million dollars but wouldn’t spend it. On Sundays when it would rain, they’d put buckets around the auditorium to catch the water that dripped through the ceiling. The money wasn’t really “hope” at all…it was life support. It was almost like they’d forgotten that Jesus didn’t say, “I came to give them life and to give them life-support.”

This doesn’t just happen to old churches though. It can happen to young, contemporary churches, too. When our churches find security in anything other than Christ, we have started the process of sticking our heads in the sand and dying a slow death.

Mark 11:12-19 tells the story of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit then immediately driving the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple. Both of these images are powerful reminders of God’s views of the local church:  1) God hates it when the church does not bear evangelistic fruit, and 2) the church does not exist for our own benefit.

All too often, the church becomes inward, focusing on our own needs, desires, hopes, and preferences. When that happens, we have become like the moneychangers: we’ve made the church about us. The tragic result of this is a church that bears less and less fruit. I’ve seen these churches with my own eyes, and it makes me weep.

Why do we let our churches go down this road? I believe it’s because we miss the passage of Scripture that follows this story.

The next morning as they passed by the fig tree he had cursed, the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots. Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, “Look, Teacher! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I assure you that you can say to this mountain, `May God lift you up and throw you into the sea,’ and your command will be obeyed. All that’s required is that you really believe and do not doubt in your heart.

~Mark 11:20-23 (NLT)

Somewhere along the way, we stopped believing in a mountain-moving God because:

  • A pastor (or pastors) hurt you, so you don’t believe God can bring you a pastor who has integrity and anointing.
  • A small group experience didn’t meet your expectations, so you no longer believe God can lead you to the right group.
  • The people you invited to church came but did not become Christ-followers, so you no longer believe that the Holy Spirit can use you to reach the lost.
  • You tithed but you still suffered a tragedy in your life, so you stopped believing that God would bless your obedience.

After we stopped believing in a mountain-moving God:

  • We established more policies and committees that help the church steer clear of pain.
  • We got stuck in our favorite ways to “do” church so we can feel secure.
  • We criticized our leaders for taking chances.
  • We chose to be suspicious of our leaders rather than trusting.
  • We shied away from making difficult decisions.
  • We actually began to believe that church was about us.

Please remember that Jesus never promised mountain moving would be easy or painless. He did not say that it would require no risk. He did not tell us that mountain moving required action on God’s part but none on ours. He said, “Have faith.” Jesus’ brother, James, asks us pointedly, “What’s the use of saying you have faith if you don’t prove it by your actions?” (James 2:14 NLT)

In order for our churches to be blessed and bear fruit, we must stop focusing on ourselves, our feelings, our needs, and our wants. Let us instead focus on those who do not know Jesus while at the same time focusing our attention on the amazing power of the Living God. Let us believe that our churches can be amazing! Let us be confident that our churches can witness mountain moving firsthand. Let us choose to believe that God can and will do the impossible. Let us choose to believe it and ACT accordingly. May our actions never betray the faith in our hearts!  

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Alan Danielson is the Lead Pastor of a church that’s probably a lot like yours. New Life Bible Church is a church of a few hundred people, but not long ago he was on the executive staff of Life.Church in Edmond, OK. Now, along with pastoring New Life, Alan is a consultant and has worked with many of America’s largest churches. Despite this, Alan has a passion for the small church. That’s why he lives by the personal conviction that no church is too small for him to work with. Alan founded Triple-Threat Solutions to help leaders of and churches of all sizes grow. Learn more from Alan at http://www.3Threat.net.