Jonah, a fish, and your dying church

By Mark Clifton

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Mark Clifton’s personal blog

Here is a sobering fact: Each Sunday across North America, no less than 10 Southern Baptist churches close their doors. more than half these churches are in our highest population areas.

In working with churches that face closure, I have often seen striking similarities between their stories and the story of Jonah.

Jonah was a godly and very successful prophet to his nation, the 10 northern tribes of Israel. Jonah would have been quick to call upon God to bless his own nation, his own people. But when God revealed His desire for Jonah to be a missionary to the evil and God-hating culture of Nineveh — the vile, big city that hated everything Jonah loved — Jonah would have none of it. This revealed that Jonah harbored a level of idolatry in his heart: for his people, his way of life, and even for his religion as he practiced it.

Rather than confront the idolatry in his heart, Jonah ran from God. His love of his people and his religion was greater than his love of God, who he understood to be the foundation of his religion.

Don’t miss this: Sometimes dying churches have made an idol of the familiarity and comfortable sameness of their church experience.

Sadly, just as Jonah resented the people of Nineveh for all their sinful behavior, sometimes dying churches resent the very people we are called to reach. We resent them because they don’t respond to us and our message as they once did. We resent them because their lifestyles offend us. We resent them because to really reach them, we will have to embrace change.

God’s intervention upon Jonah (in the form of a storm and a fish to swallow him) did not result in Jonah’s repentance. Even in the darkness of the belly of the fish where Jonah finally prayed, he never really repented of his idolatry … not even once!

In fact, Jonah’s idolatry of his nation and people were so deep-seated that, even after all of Nineveh repented, Jonah still refused to rejoice in the saving work of God! Unfortunately, I have witnessed dying churches fail to rejoice over the new church plant that is reaching their community. And, rather than eagerly embrace a partnership with that new church plant, sometimes the dying church resents the success of the new church and insists “they are taking all our young people.”

Jonah was willing to die, rather than follow God’s plan. This is all too common among our churches. So deep-seated is the idolatry in some of our struggling churches that they would, in fact, rather die than embrace the change to which Jesus has called them.

May we find our joy in repenting of our idolatry and find our true and lasting comfort as we follow Jesus only and plan for His church!,

Published October 8, 2019

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Mark Clifton

Mark Clifton is the senior director of replanting at the North American Mission Board. Mark has served as a pastor, church planter, church revitalizer, mission strategist, coach and mentor to young leaders. He has planted and replanted numerous churches and has also served as a national and regional leader for church planting and missions. His experience includes serving as the lead mission strategist for the Kansas/Nebraska Southern Baptist Convention, leading church planting efforts in the regions of north metro Atlanta, Georgia, serving as a church planter in Montreal, Quebec, as a Southern Baptist National Church Planting Missionary for eastern Canada, and has lead Southern Baptist church planting projects west of the Mississippi. Mark has been planting, replanting and providing strategic mission leadership since 1978. Mark and his wife, Jill, live in Kansas City, Missouri and have two sons, two daughters-in-law and three grandsons.