After I went into the ministry, I can recall numerous conversations with my parents about the sorry spiritual condition of their church. Fortunately, I was able to serve some very strong churches as a staff member. They would visit us and inevitably say something like, “Brother __________ sure can’t preach like that. All he does is give a Reader’s Digest kind of sermon.”
On more than one occasion, I encouraged them to look for another church. Sadly, there weren’t many options in that town. Most of the preachers were either retiring, talking like they were retired, coasting or drifting toward mediocrity. Sadly, this is the case in most communities. Surveys tell us more than 85% of established churches in North America are declining and dying. These churches have pulpits filled with dry preachers, preaching to dry people. The crowd is getting older and the church is getting colder. Not much is happening.
I grew up in that church. I hate to admit it but, after I was confronted with the true meaning of discipleship, I tried to take notes on my pastor’s messages but there wasn’t much worth remembering. He was notorious for saying, “I said all that to say this . . .” I always felt if he had just given us his conclusion we could have been eating roast beef before noon.
The only time I really listened was when my youth minister was preaching. Of course, he didn’t get to preach much. A Pastor with insecurities and self image problems rarely shares his pulpit. I am not threatened by having better preachers in our pulpit than me. In reality, it makes me dig more, study more and pray harder. If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to get off the porch. If you don’t, build a fence and pray your members never see what a real dog looks like.
Some churches are dying because they have become nothing more than a spiritual nursing home for people who can no longer take care of themselves. Our churches are full of people who want to be spoon fed, changed and left alone to sleep. These churches are wasting away because they lack vision, passion and a purpose for living. Churches that are nothing more than spiritual nursing homes have outlived their usefulness. They don’t even have the energy or desire to pray for the coming of the Lord. Mostly, they just want to sit, soak and sour until they rot and decay.
The church is supposed to be a Maternity Ward, not a Hospice. God wants His church to be a place where new believers are being born into the family. He wants the sounds of babies growing up, children maturing, spiritual teens discovering their own faith and mature adults leading the young. God never intended for a church to be a place where sick people come to moan, groan and die. The church is not a place for death. It’s a place for life. In the church we are to express abundant life. If you can’t get excited in your church, change churches. For God’s sake, don’t stay there and let the fire of God die out in your heart.
Some churches, in an effort to avoid this spiritual nursing home mentality, go to the other extreme. The ministries and minister are geared toward being ‘cute’, ‘relevant’ and ‘relational’. They are more like a Bridge club or a social club than a church. Clubs, no matter how much fun they are, are not churches. The church is more than doing something good for the community. That’s important, but lost people do that every day.
William Easum says, “People pay dues for a service that clubs perform. Lots of churches are like that. They collect dues from members who expect something in return both from the institution and the clergy. They expect to be kept and catered to. Life’s too short to spend it in a hospice, and we have too much to accomplish to spend it at the club.” Tell that to the average church and it’s the pastor who will be looking for a new church.
I’ve often wondered what I’ll do when I retire. I can’t imagine sitting in a typical church and having experienced what I have as pastor of this one. The thought of being in a church where the preacher doesn’t prepare or spends more time on the golf course than the prayer closet is nauseating to me. The thought of listening to music that drags out and an unprepared musician is enough to send chills up my spine. I can’t imagine being able to sit through that, I don’t think I can, or will. I’d rather stand on a street corner and preach to pagans than sit in a church with people who look more at home in a cemetery than a revival meeting.
Why are churches off track? One, they’ve forgotten what the Word says. They’ve fallen for the traditions of men rather than the truth of Scripture. Some churches are spiritual nursing homes because they expect the pastor to be the church visitor. These people have never read Acts 6, Ephesians 4:11, 12 or 1 Corinthians 12-14. This kind of church expects the pastor to be a superman, jack of all trades and master of none. Pastoral care is the duty and responsibility of every member, not just the paid staff.
I remember one pastor who had a lady approach him and ask, “If I’m sick will you come see me?” He said, “Lady, you don’t ever want to be that sick. That probably means you are dying.” Don’t miss the point on this one. There is nothing about a pastor’s prayer or visit that makes it any more spiritual than any other prayer or visit. Pastors should care. However, they must train their people to “do the work of the ministry” themselves. The pastor who spends his time always spoon feeding his people, changing their diapers and burping them never allows them, or forces them to grow up and take responsibility for their lives.
God forgive the church that has a name to be alive, but is dead. Activity doesn’t produce spirituality. Too many churches look to man-made methods and fleshly ideas instead of sinking their roots in prayer, Bible Study, evangelism and service. They seek a feeling but rarely find the Father. Most churches are so busy, they have no time to pray for others. They have no passion for the lost, they are too busy feeding their egos with “what’s in it for me” programming.
Too many churches are playing marbles with diamonds. We have the spirit and truth. We have power living inside us. We have the promises of God. We have the history of God’s work among His people when they seek Him. If one chooses to stay in a dead church, they have no one to blame but themselves. Every week, people come up to me and talk about how God uses our television ministry to bless them. They tell me how they love our church. Sadly, more than one has admitted they’ve been scared to leave their dead church for fear of the criticism they would get if they changed churches. I think it would be far better to be criticized by men than to find yourself on life support wondering why God seems so far away. The reality is, in most churches, He is far away. Life’s too short to see God work from a distance. If He’s working, I want to be in the middle of it.
©2002 MCC Used by permission. This article is copyrighted by the author and is for your individual use. Reproduction for any other purpose is governed by copyright laws and is strictly prohibited.
Michael served as the President of the Large Church Roundtable, the Southern Baptist Convention as an IMB Trustee, President of the Georgia Baptist Convention’s Preaching Conference, Vice President of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and President of the 2008 Southern Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. He has spoken at conferences, colleges, seminaries, rallies, camps, NBA and college chapel services, well as The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. Michael is the recipient of The Martin Luther King Award, The MLK Unity Award, and a Georgia Senate Resolution in recognition of his work in the community and in racial reconciliation.
Michael and his wife, Terri, have two grown daughters, Erin and Hayley.