In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said to Peter and the other disciples, “I will build my church…” But for what purpose did He build His church? As I search the scriptures, there are two passages that serve as bookend statements that give our answer.
In Matthew 4:18 and following, we find Jesus at the Sea of Galilee where he saw two brothers, Simon (Peter) and Andrew, fishing. He spoke to them and said, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” These were the first words recorded that He spoke to those whom He would call to become disciples.
If we fast-forward some 24 chapters in Matthew, and three years in time, once again we find Jesus with his disciples. This time they are on a mountainside and He speaks His last words before He ascended into Heaven. In verses 18-19 He spoke the words we know as the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”
If we take Jesus’ first words and His last words and analyze them, what was He saying about the purpose of those who are His followers? What is the purpose of the church? It is simply to make disciples or followers of Jesus Christ. The pivotal question becomes for each of us and as local congregations, “Are we doing this?” Are we making disciples? Are we true to the mandate?
Consider these startling facts. Ninety-three percent of all churches in North America are either plateaued or in decline. Within the Church of God between 6-8% of churches are closing their doors every year. An observation as I make my way around the state is that more and more of our congregations are seeking bi-vocational pastors simply because their numbers, as well as their finances, have declined to the point they cannot afford full-time leadership.
Why the decline? What causes churches to plateau and eventually to enter into active decline and eventual death? There are many, but let me name a few of the key causes:
An internal focus. In time churches tend to turn their attention primarily to meeting the needs of the membership rather than those outside the church. No church knowingly turns inward, but in time they all will, if there is lacking leadership to push the church continually outside its walls. This is the first and primary reason why churches plateau and decline.
A lack of “soul burden.” As a boy in a Wednesday night prayer meeting I heard an older lady say to all present that she was praying that God would give her a “soul burden.” I had never before, or since, heard that term but it’s a good one that needs to be resurrected in today’s church. What she was saying was that she was praying for a burden for people who are disconnected from God. When was the last time we prayed that God would give us such a burden? Until and unless lost people become our priority, chances are that nothing will change and our churches will continue down the slope of decline.
Denial. By this I mean denial that the church is off track, off mission, and in need of a turn around. We may see the numbers slipping and the offerings going down, but too easily we deny that we are sick and in need of intervention. We can explain away the truth with expressions like, “Well, it is summer, you know, and attendance always slides in the summer.” And too easily we can deny the fact that while this summer’s attendance is down, it is less that last year and the year before. As the old proverb puts it, “Too soon old; too late smart.” While it is true of many of us, it is equally true of many churches. Often too late we wake up to the fact that our church may soon die.
If interested in moving beyond denial and getting “on track,” Ohio Ministries offers a consultation experience for churches serious about turning around their current reality. In an intensive three-day vitalization-coaching weekend, we send in a team to work with the church in setting a new course. We follow that up with assigning a coach to work with the pastor, and their leadership, in implementing the prescriptions recommended. If this is something your church may need, I encourage you to call so we can discuss those possibilities and maybe schedule a visit. The Lord of the church wants you to succeed in the mission to which He has called you and we want to help you be found a faithful steward.
These are some of my thoughts on God’s purpose for the church and why churches plateau and decline. What would you add?