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Churches dying a slow death

Tony Morgan had a great post over the weekend. It starts with this quote from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s book “Rework”:

“When you stick with your current customers come hell or high water, you wind up cutting yourself off from new ones. Your product or service becomes so tailored to your current customers that it stops appealing to fresh blood. And that’s how your company starts to die.”

Read Tony’s thoughts here…

I think Tony makes a great point.  When a church slips into maintenance mode, and is more concerned about maintaining ministry than reaching people, a little part of the church dies.

The root cause… if you really dig down to it… for death in most churches:  inward focus.

It’s like an ingrown toenail.  You don’t even notice it at first, but the pain it brings makes itself known over time; and before you know it… you’ve got a painful and serious situation on your hands.

I have this theory.  Most churches don’t die from a sudden heart attack.  It’s not sudden AT ALL.  And many times you can’t put your finger on what went wrong.  It’s hard to go back and actually define the origin of the problem.

I think most churches die a slow death… one that starts with simple decisions that may make sense.  Decisions to protect the flock.  Decisions to make things a little easier.  Decisions to make or keep people happy.  Decisions to hide or keep people from embarrassment.  Decisions to cut corners or bury your head in the sand, thinking, hoping, (and even) praying that things get better.

Here’s the problem:  churches can do that for short periods of time and get away with it, but the problem always grows.

And by the time many church leaders even know there’s a problem… it’s too late.

What do you think of my theory?  Too simplistic?  Altogether wrong?

Is YOUR church dying a slow death?  If so… what are you doing about it?

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23 Responses to “ “Churches dying a slow death”

  1. Charles Roberts says:

    The argument collapses biblically from the very beginning. The church is not a business and the people are not customers. There is no example of truth being “marketed” by prophets, apostles or Jesus anywhere in the scripture.

    Obviously, there is a huge problem in the American church but appealing to models of American business is not new. I propose that doing such, as we have for decades, is the source of the problem not the solution.

    • Todd Rhoades says:

      Come on, Charles… is that the best you’ve got? Obviously, you couldn’t get past the first quote to see the correlation I was attempting to make (although I may have made it weakly).

      The ‘church as a business’ argument is getting old. Honestly. And… that’s NOT what this post was about.

      Sorry you didn’t read far enough.

      Todd

      • Charles Roberts says:

        I’ve been in ministry for just short of 30 years and as soon as I see analogies like Hannsson’s I see red. Because a primary vehicle ministry in my years has been worship and music, I and my colleagues have been pounded with such imagery. I could not describe the result any better than Shaun Groves has in this short post: http://shaungroves.com/2011/02/long-term-exposure/

        I’ve spent 20 years as of April loving a church through the navel gazing toward recognition of the plateau – fright and retreat from the challenge of moving forward – encouraging, rebuking and urging them onward through steps large and small, triumphant and disastrous, burying nearly 350 over the years, seeing new ones born…physically and spiritually, and never – NEVER were times worse than when we thought and acted in terms of those used to open your post.

        So sure, maybe the church as business argument is getting old but Hannsson and too many others keep pushing the language. Until it’s buried for good it’s worth calling it out for what it is.

        • Richard Haddad says:

          I’ll have to agree with Charles here solely because I think the concept of “Church=Business” is being taken lightly. I’ve heard of books saying “Learn strategies and skills of how to grow your church.”

          What? Can you imagine Jesus writing such books?

          I won’t dwell much on that subject simply because Todd’s Post really wasn’t about that.

          I think what Todd brought up is true. Our Churches are dying slowly but I think it’s crucial we look at the Seven Churches that Jesus spoke about in Revelation, to John.

          I see the problems of two churches here.
          Church in Ephesus were ministering and serving out of tradition and routine, not from the heart. Problem? “You have left your first love.” Solution? “Go back to where you have fallen and do your first works.”

          Church in Laodicea thought they didn’t need God anymore. They thought the had all they needed and were satisfied. Problem? “You are neither hot or cold.” In other words, they went with the flow of the world. Solution? “I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire.”

          Are the Churches dying a slow death? Yes.
          What’s the problem? We have placed God outside and used our strategies and money-making skills to attract people. We don’t preach to them Jesus, we advertise about MY Church or YOURS.
          Solution? Let us remember our first love.

          Todd, thank you for the post and thank you for allowing us to comment on it.

          Charles, God bless your zeal for the ministry. Don’t give up. Your heart is in the right place.

          • I appreciate the encouragement, Richard. Just yesterday in staff meeting a discussion developed around how the application of a business/efficiency approach is harming progress in overcoming a particular challenge.

            Those like Todd who poo poo at my response are often failing to realize the difference between an organization (which the institutional church has become) and an organism (which the Body of Christ is intended to be).

            Why are churches dying a slow death? Because the Organism is being fed a diet meant for an organization. Oftentimes the Efficiencies lauded and applied are full of calories but are low on nutritional value. Programming is laden with high “sugar” content which brings short bursts of high energy before bottoming out into a hypoglycemic daze. Additives increase color and attractiveness and Preservatives promise a long shelf life but they are really only shortcuts to the real work of cultivating and preparation that is necessary for a healthy diet.

            Why are churches dying a slow death? Because that the points where faithfulness becomes inefficient, efficiency becomes the priority over faithfulness.

          • Richard Haddad says:

            I can’t seem to reply to your post so I’ll just reply to mine.

            Well put. Churches are offering sugar highs to people not a Spiritual faithfulness.

    • bruce says:

      Charles, I would have to disagree with you from the start. The church IS a business, as we are in the business of reaching the lost and those who don’t know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Webster defines “business” as “a person’s principal concern”! Maybe therin lies the problem…no one believes it’s their principal concern and figures the job will get done one way or another. Why did Christ instruct His disciples as His ministry moved forward? You “instruct” those in whom you have the faith to carry your cause/message forward, and that is th e”business” we shuold all be in!

    • Joe says:

      Tickets to a church Christmas program in Windsor, CO are $12-15 each. Tickets to a church candlelight service here in Fort Collins, CO are $18 each. Cards for church bingo games are $8. Vendor spaces at church arts and crafts shows and summer parking lot sales are $50 each. Mega churches sell hundreds of drinks and snacks in the foyer before and after each service. Now, tell me again Charles, why the church is not a business.

  2. susan says:

    But the “problem” is more complicated than you have made it, Todd. The church IS “the customers.”. Our little church cares deeply for one another. In the last four years we have been quite conscious of turning our attention outward. About a third of our congregation is new: ALL of them are refugees from churches where they were so deeply wouunded they left the church altogether for a while. Several people have come to Christ; they’re all spouses of the former “wounded” folks. This year I was privileged to accompany a 90-year-old member of our church coming to Christ “for real,” days before her death.
    This is a real church, where the real work of discipleship happens in fits and starts among real down-in-the-dirt regular folks. We’re not hip. No multiple locations. And given a culture where only the truly hungry-for-God (we’re in the Northeast) ever even think about coming to church, and the costs of running the institution, we might not make it another 10 years. But this kind of article just wearies me.

    • Todd Rhoades says:

      You are correct… it is much more complicated than it appears. And perhaps much more complicated than it should be.

      Don’t get me wrong… I’m not advocating that every church needs multiple locations, flashing lights, etc. In fact, those things can make a church complacent in and of themselves.

      The kind of ministry you describe (tending to the battered sheep from other churches) is an even tougher kind of work. Bless you for doing it.

      But most churches are not doing that either. Most churches are dying from the inside. They have no one new to disciple. In many cases they are run by two committees: finance and property. That’s where the power lies, and that’s what gets attention.

      I live in a town where there are a ton of churches, and very few making a dent. Very few. And… truth be told… most are (and maybe I’m wrong…) dying a. very. slow. death.

      The point of this post is to get people to do an inventory to see where their church is at. And if it has areas of unhealth and dying, to take steps now to try to self-correct.

      Sorry if the quote from the business book threw you all. That was not the intent.

      Todd

  3. I’m with you Todd. Talk about being “wearied” by Christian attitudes toward a lost world that is on a slippery highway to hell….WILL SOMEONE PLEASE explain to me WHY is it a sin, and where do the scriptures forbid the church can and should be both MISSIONAL and ATTRACTIONAL??? So let me get this straight, in order to be “godly” and “holy” and “scripturally accurate” I have to make my church appear to be as plain and dull and boring as possible while, at the same time, trying to win the lost souls of my community to Christ!? REALLY??? I grew up in this! It is legalism! I too have been a pastor for more that 30 years and we do NOT compromise the scriptures at our church! As we used to say when I was a boy, “we preach hell hot and heaven sweet!” At our church, we are well able to maintain scriptural integrity, while at the same time being creative and offering a WOW experience when unchurched/lost people visit us. Last night we had 200 people attend our “Dinner With the Staff” (a meal/info event for newcomers) to learn more about who we are and where we’re going as a church. Without exception, these people told us that they were attracted to us by our “marketing” approach. Before they left the meeting, we gave a crystal clear presentation of GOSPEL of Jesus Christ. I have a feeling that I would NEVER have got the opportunity to share Jesus with this group had our church not first been ATTRACTIONAL. People can make “marketing” and “business” dirty words all they want to, but the reason the unchurched aren’t even looking at most churches is because they appear to be irrelevant, even if they’re not. The Bible says we are FISHERMEN….and when I am privileged to look into the tackle box of an effective fisherman, it has all kinds of creative ways to attract the fish! Please do not tell me that we can not be MISSIONAL and ATTRACTIONAL at the same time – actually, that is how it is supposed to work!

    • Todd Rhoades says:

      Amen, brother. Both/And rather than Either/Or.

    • Kevin Copeland says:

      I have no problem with attracting people, as long as there is some substance. Many of my friends are leaving the church, and some even leaving Christianity altogether, because they were attracted to a church by their marketing approach, but they were also spiritually hungry. Unfortunately, they were lured in by something that looked good, but was really fake, plastic, empty and filled with painful hooks that tried to hold onto them and control them. They discovered that the church had a form of godliness, but no real power. Without the Holy Spirit attracting them, it was just another fake, controlling, man made religion.

      I’ve found that the best way for me to be missional is to go outside of the church building, cast a net, and let the Lord draw people in, like he did with the disciples fish. Instead of using a tackle box full of lures to hook them into boat.

      • Richard Haddad says:

        Kevin, well said. God bless you.

        The problem with our Churches these days is that we limit it to brick and mortar. Jesus called disciples to follow Him and then sat in a boat, on the ground in a field.

        Jesus’ call was “Come to Me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”

        His call wasn’t “Come to My Church.”

        I’m not saying that Churches are wrong; all I’m saying is we’re too caught up with making people come to my Church and not to Christ.

        For me, my Church is my Family; and we are part of the Family of Christ. You are more than welcome to join my small family, but if you don’t, it’s okay. The important thing is that you join the Family of Christ.

  4. Steve Miller says:

    Revelations 2:4 reveals a stern judgment on the Church of Ephesus; they lost their first love. I believe this is a somber warning for all churches. Unlike most of Paul’s letters the book of Ephesians does not tackle any major heresy or error within the church. The whole book seems to be an encouragement to keep to the course and continue to love God and one another. Yet chapter two of Revelations reveals they somehow missed this chief point. Verses 1-3 reveals an active vibrant church with sound doctrine, but when it comes to love (verse 4), they come up short.

    This week I got out my old favorite leather boots. I tried wearing them but through lack of use and general neglect they no longer were comfortable. They still look like boots and they fit my feet, but they are hard and wear on my skin. Rather than protect my feet they hurt them-they looked okay but they were unfit for service. Over a few days I worked oil into the leather and rubbed them, cleaned them and cared for them. Now they are flexible, comfy, and fit for enduring the rugged Ohio terrain and weather.

    I think in some ways our churches have dried up like old boots. Instead of a passionate intimate relationship with Christ we have become distracted and unattached to our first love. The world and its comforts have infected us. We’ve settled for being just saved and not being radically transformed disciples.

    There are easier ways to do church than to do the hard work of cultivating an intimate relationship with Christ. We can choose to be merely “religious” and do programs and fill buildings, but it will only look like a church and it will chaff whoever enters.

    Through the Holy Spirit, God works on us, cleans us, empowers us, and makes us effective in form and substance. As we abide in Christ he keeps us pliable and effective for Kingdom purposes, but more than that, as we respond to His love and do the Kingdom work with Kingdom power we are freed to be who we were created to be; His beloved bride.

  5. Eric says:

    I agree with you Todd. Your explanation is a simple one. Maybe a bit too simple as you allude to. But, the correct answer is usually the simplest one.

    I believe while most churches are very friendly and warm, they have been focused on the warmth and friendship within the church. I think what has happened (and this is also oversimplifying it) is that churches have either worked to keep what they have or worked to grow and develop. Both types of churches generally meet their goals. Those who have tried to keep what they have, have succeeded but ultimately they are dying because they are not seeing any renewal.

    In your original post you said, ” And many times you can’t put your finger on what went wrong. It’s hard to go back and actually define the origin of the problem.” I totally agree. But the danger is focusing too much on when it went wrong because our focus should be on moving forward with the mission of the church. That mission (within the Great Commission) is different for each church.

    Great topic.

  6. Pastor Tom says:

    I have the joy/burden of being Bi-Vocational, and because of this I know a bit about marketing. I think that Mr. Morgan, and Todd have point. But I also think there is something more basic here.
    Just yesterday i did a message on, “are we a Laodicean Church”? From (Rev. 2:20). I also believe that there are no plateaued Churches. Ether you are moving forward, or you are dieing. That does not mean that we are always going to grow numerically, but, we should be growing spiritually. When i was called to my present church, they were dead, but did not know it. Not that I am any great evangelist, but I heard the call of Jesus to resurrect this church, and I believe that we, as a church have done so. Jesus wrote to the Laodicean Church in Rev. 2:20 “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
    Too many of our churches do not hear the knock, or are just too inwardly focused to know the Savior would like to join them. If we keep Jesus out, He will as he was saying to the church in Ephesus, ” Rev. 2:5 Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place”. That is the place which most of our churches are at today, they truly do not know that Jesus is not even there anymore. Reach out to the lost, there is where we need to be. Don’t just sit inside of your 4 walls, and think, “How lucky we are, “not” to be like those outside of us”. Our job as Pastors, is to encourage our people to seek out the lost, and to have them see Jesus in us. Then we can truly say that We are a growing Church, market driven, or not.

  7. Ron Riemar says:

    I agree Todd. I have spent the majority of my life in church work and too often we spend the majority of our time appeasing the “status quo”. I am working through 2 books right now which seem to speak to this issue. “Who stole my church?” by Gordon Mcdonald and “Radial” by David Platt. For far too long the American Church has sat on the premisis instead of standing on the promises. We have gotten too comfortable with “church as usual!” It is time to start reaching the lost instead of comforting the comfortable. Maybe that is why the most effective churches today are those who have thrown away the “churchy” rules and outdated methods, and are pursuing people with the unchanging Gospel of Christ.

  8. Fred says:

    I have read a statement similar to that one before. Just looking at it from a strictly business standpoint, it would be a very foolish tactic to offend and run off your old customers. Your old customers and word of mouth is the best marketing you can get, especially in today’s “connected” market. There are plenty of ways to draw in new customers and keep the old ones. If I am a potential new customer, the first thing I want to know is if you have added value to and satisfied your old customers. If you can’t keep your existing customer base happy while aggressively reaching new customers in your market, you do not have a business.

  9. Paul says:

    Ditto at Fred’s comment.

  10. Kyle McClain says:

    I think if we take a minute to consider what Tony says and then how applying it to a church changes the concepts context it makes more sense. And I believe the biggest change in context is the way the “customer” relationship differs from that of a business.

    That relationship is different in many ways, one of which is how the old “customers” are not really customers anymore. Once they commit to being a member of the church or even just a attender that relationship changes. In business terms they move from being a prospect to being in some sense, a staff member or employee. Their goals, in theory should align with the churches goals and mission.

    One of the problem the american church faces today is that so many people come to the church with the “what can you do for me” mindset and for whatever reason never make it to the “how can I serve the lost by being the church” mindset.

    So really the problem is not that we look at people as “customers” but that we don’t do a good job helping them to transition to a team member role.

    I might be completely of base on this, these are just my thoughts on it.

  11. D. Rothenberger says:

    Ok, as I see it, though we hate mixing business up with the cross, Todd has a point.
    1. In churches, one size does not fit all. Every church has to commit to its very best presentation of the Good News by the best means God gifted them…top of our game, consistently. Jesus connected really well with groups of 4 or 5 thousand, in a field, on a mountain side and miracles happened. Peter did well as an urban preacher and thousands were saved. His letters though were short and to the point. He was a stronger preacher than writer. Paul on the other hand was strong in both, but instead of groups of thousands, Paul did small churches and transformed his world one house church at a time. Plus, he was an excellent communicator of the written word and loved using it to meet needs, answer questions, admonish, nurture and grow. Fundraising was necessary in the first NT days just as it is now to further the presentation of the gospel and meet the needs of the church and world, as well as provide the sense of destiny and fulfillment God promises when we invest in tithing.
    2. So if we operate at the top of our game, develop excellence in our gifts, present Christ consistently to the community, meet needs inside and outside the 4 walls, and love God, love others, love ourselves according to the purpose of God, our opportunities increase for hearts saved, lives changed, and minds renewed.
    3. We are not cowtowing to sinners, we are honoring God by presenting Him to others by the excellence of our gifts. Don’t they deserve to hear the truth in the best way possible? Honestly, how many of us say to ourselves, “We are only going to do a mediocre job of presenting the gospel this week and whoever gets it, gets it?” Paul shaved his head to connect better even though that was merely a cultural thing to help him connect better with his intended hearers.
    4. Let’s invest our 10 talents, take the risk! Wouldn’t we rather hear him say well done or at least garner some interest for him rather than suffer his disappointment and be found useless?

    I’m just sayin….

  12. Bruce says:

    I think the article hits the nail on the head. [churches] who attempt to save thier lives will lose it, and [churches] who lose their lives for my sake, will be saved. Find ways to give yourself away in the name of Jesus, church. Everything else will take care of itself. Thanks, again for solid insight.

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