Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, August 16, 2018
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Dying Churches Live in the Past

Philippians 3:12-14 and Hebrews 11:1-16

 Today is the first of five Sundays that we’ll be talking about the book “Autopsy of a Deceased Church.”  I think it’s important to begin by defining some terms.  The Church, capital C, will never die.  Jesus said, “The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”  But individual churches, small c, congregations die all the time.  Today it’s about 4000 congregations that die each year in the US alone.  

 Now, to be sure, churches are resilient.  They don’t give up easily.  Some people say that is especially the case here in Appalachia.  About ten years ago I was at an event for small church leaders near Kittanning, and the workshop leader, who had once been a District Superintendent in our neighboring conference, Central PA, told a story.  They had a new bishop come to that conference, and he boldly proclaimed, to the superintendents only, that of the 800 churches in that conference, only 200 would still be open in 25 years, so they were going to try to find the very best 200 churches and let the other 600 die out.  As this former superintendent said, “25 years later came and went, and his prediction of 600 churches dying was only off by about 550.”  

 But even if churches are resilient about keeping the doors open, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy and alive and vibrant.  Many congregations are alive in name only:  They aren’t making disciples.  They aren’t changing the world around them.  They’re just going through the motions.  

 The journey from healthy and vibrant to dying is seldom a quick one.  Occasionally a church has a major decline because of a natural disaster or a change in the economy.  But mostly, it’s a long slow decline.

 The most pervasive trait of a dying church, as the author Thom Rainer points out, is that dying churches allow the past to become their hero.  They live in the past.  It’s not that they are holding on to essential doctrines or clinging tightly to the ancient truth.  Rather, they are clinging to traditions and practices.  They’re living in how things used to be done.  The message must stay the same.  The truths must not change.  But the way we proclaim the message must change to stay relevant to the world around us.  

 We can respect the past without living in it.  We can honor the people and practices of the past without continuing to do them.  We can acknowledge that what was done 50 years ago worked well then without also saying, “We need to do it now.”  

 We can’t preserve what was.  Jesus told us that self-preservation doesn’t work.  “If you cling to your life, you will lose it.  But if you give up your life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, you will keep it for eternity.”  

 We can’t live in what was.  As people of faith, we are called to live in what will be.  To be a person of faith is to live in the hope and expectation of what will be, not the memory of what was.  

 I read for you from Hebrews 11, a great chapter about the heroes of faith from the past.  But notice the defining quality of faith:  A confidence about what will happen.  Our faith is based on the past.  We have a hope of the future resurrection exactly because Jesus already rose from the dead.  Our confidence can be bolstered by the past.  We can trust in what God will do because we can look back on the history of what he has already done.  

 But our focus, as people of faith, must always be on the future.  The author of Hebrews reminds us that the great heroes of faith were future-focused.  They were looking forward to what God would do.  Most of them died without ever seeing God’s promises come true except by their faith.  

 Faith might look foolish to the world, like Noah building an ark on dry land.  Faith might mean taking the first step without knowing where the journey is going.  Abraham left Ur in Chaldea for the Promised Land without even knowing where it was.  

 My worry for churches today is that most of them aren’t willing to live by faith.  They want to see the whole thing planned out in advance before they set out on the journey.  They want to know how long it will take to get to the Promised Land and how much the trip will cost and where they’re stopping for lunch before they set foot outside of Ur.  They’re not willing to be foreigners and nomads on the earth.  They want to settle for the predictable and the routine.

 Paul says, “Forget the past.” Now, I think Paul is speaking with hyperbole.  For one thing, it’s impossible to forget the past on purpose.  And for another thing, it’s not good to forget the past.  Those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.  We should learn from the past.  But his point is that our focus should always be on where we are going, not where we’ve been or even where we are.

 A church that says, “Our best days are behind us,” and there are many of them, is a church that lacks faith.  For one thing, as followers of Jesus, our best days are always going to be ahead of us until Christ returns and the old creation passes away to make way for the New Heaven and New Earth.  But more than that, when we say, “Our best days are behind us,” we are denying the possibility that God can still do great things among us.  

 One final thought for today.  On page 40, Thom Rainer points out dying churches tend to remember the best parts of the good ol’ days, things like high attendance and new members, and they forget the hard work that made those things possible.  

 I think he has a real point there.  Several times in my years here at Seward, I’ve been told how in the good ol’ days the church would have a week-long missions festival.  Missionaries would come to speak and there were home Bible studies in different places throughout the week.  It was lifted up as a high water mark.  I’m sure it was.  But it also occurs to me that an awful lot of work must have gone into making that happen every year.  I wouldn’t know where to start.  

 The point he’s making is that if a church hopes to see good days ahead, then that hope must also be accompanied by a willingness to be obedient to God’s will.  We are God’s co-laborers, so we must be willing to do our part in what God is doing to see the results.  

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