Why Churches Die, Part 4: They Focused on Transformed Behavior, Not Transformed Lives

By Bob Bickford

Old Earl* is like many long-time church members who are at the church every time the doors are open. He’s served as the Trustee Committee chair and he’s a lifelong deacon. If you stop long enough, he will mention that his family donated the land on which the church sits and they even helped fund the parsonage. His company hung all the sheet rock during the remodel back in the mid-80s.

Through the ups and downs of the church and pastoral transitions, Earl and his family have been one of the constants in the congregation. If credit was given for being present and remaining through thick and thin, Earl and his wife Mary would certainly have a lot of it banked.

To the pastors and newer members, Earl and Mary are like sweet grandparents or a favorite uncle and aunt – until they aren’t.

By all accounts Earl and Mary are faithful. They give regularly. They serve and love the church. But what happens behind the scenes tells another story.

Earl has been known to pound the table and yell during Trustee Committee meetings when he doesn’t get his way or when some new pastor or member is trying to “change” things at the church.

Mary, a faithful pre-school volunteer, finds her worth and value through the hugs and smiles of the children in her class, yet she regularly complains about not having enough energy to teach Sunday school anymore. When she is offered a break or opportunity to transition to a different service role she balks, then sulks, then goes on the attack, launching a gossip and slander campaign, the likes of which would make even the most ardent political operative shudder.

When things get “stirred up” enough, a private meeting of Earl and Mary’s Sunday school class is called at their home. The agenda: How to launch strategies to keep things the way they were and help the pastor see that it’s time for him to move on.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of church members like Early and Mary are part of congregations across our nation. They are faithful, sweet (as long as they’re not crossed) and entrenched in key leadership roles or informal positions of influence. They might be lay folks or even long-time staff members or spouses of staff members. On the surface, they appear moral, faithful and dedicated. Yet when something doesn’t go as they expect, demand or plan, their sweetness evaporates.

The problem: They exhibit a measure of transformed behavior but deep down they are not being or have not been transformed by the power of Christ.

These mortal souls don’t drink, dance, cuss, smoke (some used to in the 70s) or chew. They didn’t marry those who do and they’ve stayed faithful to the ones they married. They raised a few kids who grew up in the church. They appear to be good church people, but there’s something simmering under the surface, which bubbles up during tension, stress and conflict or – even worse – when someone wants to change something at the church to see it grow.

They are sweet in Sunday school, during the handshake time in worship and before and after worship, but mean as a snake during contentious committee or business meetings.

When we are saved from our sin, by the power of Jesus Christ, our old self is crucified. We have been set free from sin. That means we are free to pursue righteousness and, through God’s power and the guidance of the Spirit, we can live changed lives.

The marks of being full of and led by the Spirit are clear: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

As enduring qualities, especially in times of strain, stress and conflict, these are largely absent in the lives of Old Earl and Mary.  Why?

They may be under-discipled. Knowing the Bible stories and the facts of Paul’s missionary journeys is great, but facts on face value rarely change behavior. Following Christ involves dying to self, setting aside your preferences and agendas. Discipleship is often painful to us personally.

They may be spiritually stagnant. A vital and vibrant walk with Christ requires regular examination and evaluation of the condition of your heart and life, as seen through your actions and reactions. It’s very likely no one has successfully helped Earl or Mary see that their actions are sinful, contrary to conduct of a growing Christ follower and harmful to the body.

They may not be truly regenerate. While controversial and perhaps even a bit offensive to say, this could be the reality. They may have walked the aisle, prayed a prayer, given money, sacrificed in service and been faithfully present for years.  But perhaps they have not come to accept or fully understand the fact they are sinners in need of saving. That salvation is by grace through faith and not of works. That Jesus is Lord of all – or he’s not Lord at all.

When a church has a lot of folks like Earl or Mary, when they occupy positions of influence, when they are the decision makers or gatekeepers, it’s easy to understand why a church may not be growing or has been in decline.

Look for a follow-up to this post next week: Raising the Level of Discipleship in a Declined Church.

* Earl and Mary are fictitious names which represent a composite of characteristics found in members of a local church in decline.

Published February 1, 2023

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick