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A Second Resurrection
Leading Your Congregation to New Life
By Bill Easum
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
When It's Not a Matter of Sickness
Let those who have ears to hear, hear.
Ridiculous!" he screamed as I explained to him the plan for this book. "You can't compare turning around an established church with the resurrection of Jesus Christ! That's sacrilege!" he shouted as he stomped out of the room.
Obviously this person has never experienced the pain of trying to turn around an established church. Nothing can be more difficult. I hear this difficulty echoed in the testimony of every turnaround pastor with whom I talk or consult (and I've consulted on-site with hundreds of pastors who wanted to turn around their churches). Sure, turnaround can't literally be compared to Jesus' resurrection. But metaphorically it most definitely can. If you've tried to turn a church around, you know what I mean. But let me explain more fully.
Revitalization Is Not the Answer
For much of the past three decades, denominational officials have been promoting seminars and programs aimed at revitalizing the church. I know because I have been the speaker or consultant to many of these groups. For many of these leaders, their goal was to breathe new life into churches experiencing declining memberships and lack of commitment. Yet after years of trying to revitalize these churches, the vast majority of them are still declining. What gives?
Is it possible we have underestimated the seriousness of Western Protestantism's situation? What if the metaphors of reformation, renewal, and revitalization don't get to the heart of the problem? What if the situation is much worse than those words describe? What if the vast majority of congregations in the West are spiritually dead and God no longer considers them to be churches? What if God has one foot out the door of most of Western Protestantism? What if the vast majority of our churches are like the church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelations? What if God is about to spit us out of his mouth?
Reformation, renewal, and revitalization assume some preexisting foundation of faith from which to raise up a new church. But what if that assumption isn't correct? What if the assumption is part of our problem? What if being a member of a church for forty years doesn't automatically guarantee any spiritual depth? What if holding every office in the church doesn't automatically mean someone is a disciple of Jesus Christ? Do we dare look deep enough into our souls to find answers to these questions?
Based on the conversations and actions of the thousands of Protestant leaders with whom I worked over the years, I have concluded that most of them are spiritually dead and their institutions have ceased being the church. They have the form but not the substance of what it means to be the church.
Perhaps you're wondering how I define a "spiritually dead church." What you must keep in mind is that churches are nothing more than people who have come together. So when I refer to "church" I am not referring to the institution, but to the people who make up the church. Christianity is a movement of people who have come together in a group for a purpose. So I'm not talking about the resurrection of an institution. I'm talking about the resurrection of the people who make up the institution. They are the ones who are spiritually dead.
I have never seen a church where every member is spiritually dead. A remnant seems to always exist. But overall, the actions of the church are void of any spirituality. Every church has those who remain spiritually focused, enthused, and on fire no matter how complacent those around them may grow. The key is to tap into those folks and grow their number. More on this later.
So let me define what I mean by spiritually dead churches. Here are some clues. Spiritually dead churches
Have lost their sense of mission to those who have not heard about Jesus Christ and do not pant after the Great Commission;
Exist primarily to provide fellowship for the "members of the club";
Expect their pastors to focus primarily on ministering to the members' personal spiritual needs;
Design ministry to meet the needs of their members;
Have no idea about the needs of the "stranger outside the gates";
Are focused more on the past than the future;
Often experience major forms of conflict;
And watch the bottom line of the financial statement more than the number of confessions of faith.
Such churches are living corpses. They are physically alive; some may even be growing; but they are spiritually dead to the mission of the New Testament church—to make disciples of Jesus Christ. They've turned inward and exist solely for themselves. They look for ways to serve themselves, and the kingdom be damned. They're like baby birds sitting in the nest with their mouths open waiting for momma bird (pastor) to feed them with no concept that Jesus intends them to feed others. Oh, they might collect money to send away to some distant mission field, but they're all thumbs when it comes to sharing the good news with their neighbor or community. What growth they might experience is not of their doing—it just happens because of the population growth around them.
The Hidden Truth
Underneath all of the tactics and programs in a consultant's bags of tricks, lies something rarely talked about—the abundance of selfish leaders and the lack of spiritually obedient leaders, both lay and clergy. (I hate using those terms.) Most churches have copped out to democratic rule and corporate behaviors instead of following the biblical principles of discernment and prayer. Our churches nominate and elect people to committees and boards without the slightest idea of the depth of their private spiritual life. We allow people to vote on the future of the church who haven't disciplined their lives, much less prayed about the issue. We have so many checks and balances we make it impossible for the Holy Spirit to move among us. And we wonder why we're in the mess we're in.
The following email is indicative of dozens of emails I receive each year.
Subject: Re: thanks
Date: 7/11/2006 10:33:50 A.M. Central Standard Time
From: anyone@ hotmail.com
Dear Bill and Tom,
Thank you for the books you have written and the seminars you have led. They helped shape my ministry for the past several years. However, if I were two years older or much younger today I would probably leave the ministry and find something else to do.
I tried to lead my last church to change and was reappointed to the most tension-filled, control-oriented church I have ever served. I don't mind the tension or facing the controllers. We have been successful in this regard. At both my last church and this church, eventually in the midst of change, the most healthy, respected, and potentially effective leaders quit to go to large churches with a full menu of programs.
It is not my preaching that causes them to leave nor my basic personality. They usually leave to follow their wives or children to a church that currently offers them what they need/want. I am really frustrated this morning, as the most respected and strongest layperson let others know what I already knew, that he was leaving to follow his wife to a successful church in a neighboring town.
I really have doubts that any churched people want to have a compelling vision; it might cost too much for them to fulfill it. I will probably stay here a little longer and watch a few more people who could have been key players leave, then I will go to another church and play "Pastor Fetch" until I retire. Yuck!
I am not upset with you or the laypeople who leave, or the system for that matter. The problem is within me and my lack of wisdom, leadership gifts, and ability to inspire people. What I hope to see happen is simply elusive and seemingly unattainable for me—to help a congregation become a vital, alive Body of Christ impacting the community in positive ways.
Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
I began addressing the spiritual condition of churches in my book Unfreezing Moves where I suggested the starting point for unfreezing a stuck organizational system is the development of a solid community of faith that included spiritual leaders, the absence of major conflict, trust, and a desire to connect with the unchurched world.
I suggested that true spiritual maturity was approached when people turned their attention to those outside the church and sought ways to spread the good news rather than exercise their entitlements as members. Unfortunately, too many pastors assume their church has spiritual leaders and skip right over this starting point. It has become apparent to me that most church leaders do not understand that the decline of their church is due to the lack of spiritual depth on the part of their leadership.
So, now, I want to go deeper on the spiritual issue. It's not just that our churches are stuck; they are spiritually bankrupt!
I know. These churches are filled mostly with good Christian people, but there's no discernable spiritual power, just good Christian people—and we all know what Jesus said about being good.
So it's obvious. Isn't it? The only solution for spiritually dead congregations is resurrection. You can't revitalize something that is dead. They must be brought to life again! And that is resurrection.
Revitalization is a waste of time. You can't breathe life into a corpse. Only God can do that, and that is resurrection.
But if resurrection happens our behavior changes:
The church turns outward in its focus
Jesus, not the institution, will become the object of our affection.
The Great Commission will become our mandate, and we will measure everything we do by how many new converts we make rather than whether we have a black bottom line.
Membership in the Kingdom will replace membership in the church.
Pastors will cease being chaplains of pastoral care and will become modern-day apostles of Jesus Christ.
And those who try to control the church with an iron fist or intimidate the church at every turn of the road will be shown the door.
But what about the immigrant church? Many of today's denominations started out as immigrant churches. Immigrant churches were never about reaching out and making disciples. They were started to meet the religious needs of a particular community of people. These people were defined by a particular culture and language. Initially worship was in the native language and reflected the style and music of the "homeland." The assumption was, "Of course people will come here." And they did, because the church was their only connection to their native land. Even the transition in worship from the native language to English was prompted by internal considerations—the young people no longer spoke the original language.
In many of these churches the major outreach was to help new immigrants as they adapted to the dominant culture. Those who had been in the U.S. longer would help the new folks learn how to survive in an alien cultural context. The pastor's time was always to be spent in ministry with the members of the congregation and their families. There was no expectation that the pastor would be engaged in reaching out to disciple new folks. Growth was accidental or biological.
It's my contention that these were dead churches from the beginning. Their intentions were good, but their execution was flawed. They were faithful to the Great Commandment but not the Great Commission. Both are required to be a spiritually faithful church.
Reformation Is Not the Answer Either
Much has been written lately about our being in the midst of a second reformation. Some believe the First Reformation was about freeing the church from the institution and the Second Reformation is about freeing God's people from the church.
Not so. The First Reformation did not free the church from the institution. Instead, slavery to our institutions is the primary sin of our time. Most of our people love their buildings more than their God, to the point of making an eleventh commandment necessary: "Thou shalt not love thy buildings more than thy God." Most of our churches are too spiritually dead to be reformed. Reformation isn't the answer.
Denial Is Futile
My grandfather on my mother's side died from a curable disease. He had a skin cancer on his ear lobe, and he refused to get it cut out. Instead, he tried to cure it with a home remedy. It didn't work. The cancer grew into his ear and ultimately into his brain, and he died. His skin cancer was curable; he didn't need to die, but he did.
Most established Protestant leaders and churches are like my grandfather. Like the ostrich, they have buried their heads in the sand, denying the reality any idiot can recognize—something is terribly wrong with our churches. Like my grandfather, if we continue to deny the problem and try to tinker with it ourselves (revitalization) we will needlessly go the way of my grandfather.
My prayer is that you will respond like the person did in the following email, sent after reading a draft of this chapter.
Subject: pondering leadership
Date: 4/14/2006 10:07:08 P.M. Central Standard Time
"This is a painful read for one who for several years felt she would be able to 'revitalize' a broken church, then realized that if it were ever to live God would have to resurrect it."
The primary reason society is shunning the institutional church is because for the most part it is spiritually dead. Spiritually alive churches, no matter what their form or where they are planted, always grow. That is the nature of the beast. That is the kind of church God honors. That is what the church was put on earth to do—spread the good news. When a church faithfully does that, it grows. Period.
If your church isn't growing, don't take offense. Instead ask yourself why? Does it spend the vast majority of its time figuring out and executing ways to spread the good news? Does it understand that it exists for those who are not yet part of it? Does it pray daily for the spiritual and social redemption of the community? If not, it's spiritually dead, no matter how well it takes care of its members. Unless, of course, it is really a hospice or hospital and not a church!
Priests Don't Handle Dead People
The Old Testament is full of rules regarding what a priest can and can't do. The goal of these rules was to keep God's people holy and clean. Everything was divided up by five categories— Very Holy, Holy, Clean, Unclean, Very Unclean. In order to remain holy, and lead the people, the priest had to avoid all contact with people who were unclean and very unclean. Among the very unclean were people who had major impurities or were dead. If a priest was to touch a dead person that priest became unclean and thus unholy and unfit to lead the people.
Do you see where I'm going with this? Pastors who spend most of their time with spiritually dead people become unfit to lead.
The one thing you can't do is remain the pastor of a spiritually dead church. If you do it will drain you of your spirituality. It's my opinion that that's what has happened to the majority of clergy in established denominations. They have handled dead people so long they have become spiritually dead and are content with being funeral directors.
If you want to be one of God's leaders, then you have only two choices—resurrect the church or get out of Dodge.
So what do you do with spiritually dead people who refuse resurrection? You ignore them. Whatever it takes, you don't let them set the agenda for you or the church.
The Basic Law of Congregational Life
In my first book, years ago, I shared what I considered to be the basic law of congregational life: "Churches grow when they intentionally reach out to people instead of concentrating on their institutional needs; churches die when they concentrate on their own needs."
The basic law of congregational life still holds today because it is as biblical as one gets. Spiritually dead churches selfishly care for themselves; spiritually alive churches reach out to those who are not yet part of them. It's that simple.
Excerpted from A Second Resurrection by Bill Easum. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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