Over the course of the past several years, our team has had the opportunity to visit with hundreds of churches that need to be revitalized or replanted. I so wish I could tell you that every single one of these stories ends in a church experiencing new life and reaching its community in a new and exciting way.
Unfortunately, the sad reality is that, far too often, these stories don’t have happy endings. Sometimes a church dies, despite the best efforts of pastors and associational/denominational leaders. There are far too many situations for this than we can cover in a single post, so over the next few months we’ll post a series of blogs discussing some of the reasons churches die.
Perhaps the saddest reason some churches die is because they begin loving something more than Jesus. Now, there’s no way to tiptoe around this harsh reality: To love something more than Jesus is nothing more than idolatry. It’s plain and simple.
To be fair, I don’t think anyone who claims to be a Christian would do this on purpose. I don’t think you’d ever hear a church member say, “No! I love ______ more than I love Jesus, so I’m not going to change.” But what does happen is that they mistake their way of doing something for their love of the Lord.
Sadly, church members can begin to love any number of things more than they love Jesus. In this post, I’ll look at just three things I’ve encountered. We could add more to this list, but I think you’ll get the basic idea.
1. Churches can love their music more than they love Jesus.
Years ago (and in some cases still today) we saw churches fight and split – and some even die – over the style of music in worship services. Some folks on both sides of this debate conflated their preferred music style with true worship. If we love our idea of worship more than we love Jesus, our church is in trouble.
2. Churches can love their buildings more than they love Jesus.
Yes, on its face, this sounds ridiculous (and it is). But this idol rears its ugly head when something about the physical space of the church changes. Maybe an outside group is allowed to use the space and they don’t set things back up correctly or (gasp!) they even break something. In some cases, this shows up when it’s time to change the carpet or paint color. It can be especially prevalent when a church leader has the audacity to suggest taking out the pews and using chairs instead. The real issue here is that folks confuse the physical space of the church building with what it means to be the church. Buildings are fantastic when they serve the church well. But they are terrible masters when they begin dictating what the church can – and can’t – do in ministry. If we love our buildings more than we love Jesus, our church is in trouble.
3. Churches can love their structures more than they love Jesus.
“I don’t care what the Bible says, we’re talking about the bylaws!” Maybe you’ve never actually heard this statement articulated this clearly, but I’m willing to bet you’ve encountered this attitude once or twice. Just like we discussed with music, churches can conflate their way of doing church with what it means to be the church. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having certain teams and committees in place to help the church effectively reach their community with the gospel (as long as these structures aren’t unbiblical). But when teams, committees and the Constitution and Bylaws become hindrances rather than assets, it’s time to re-evaluate their effectiveness and revamp them where necessary. If revisiting and revamping them is a nonstarter, it reveals something about the heart of the church and exposes an idol. In some churches, I’m afraid the pastor could be fired faster for violating the bylaws than he could by violating Scripture! If we love our structures more than we love Jesus, our church is in trouble.
What do I do now?
These are just a few of the things that can creep in and distract church members’ attention and affection from the Savior. So, if you see any of these in your church, what do you do?
First, lead your people to repent. The first step to recovery is to realize there’s a problem. But where idolatry is present, the only recourse is to repent of that sin and return to the Lord. As a pastor, this starts with you.
Secondly, love your people well. I doubt they meant to fall into idolatry. So be patient with them as you lead them to repent. Love and lead them well through the (perhaps) long process of recovering their first love.
Finally, and most importantly, constantly point them to Jesus. Jesus is better than our preferred music. He’s better than our buildings. He’s better than our church structures. He has promised that He will build His church. So we can take Him at His word and trust that He will not lead us astray. Again, this starts with you, pastor. Keep your eyes focused on Jesus, and help your folks keep their eyes focused on Him, too.
Published November 18, 2022